|Sleeping Dictionary, The|
|DVD Romantic Drama|
|Written by Tara O'Shea|
|Tuesday, 18 February 2003|
You know, having suffered through only one episode of "Dark Angel," had I been told that series star Jessica Alba's big-screen debut was in a period drama set in Malysia involving no kicking or guns at all, I would have laughed and laughed. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much "The Sleeping Dictionary" did not suck.
The film opens with John Truscott ("Blackhawk Down" alum Hugh Dancy), a real jewel in the crown of British Imperialism, arriving in Sarawak under the employ of the local governor, Bullard (Bob Hoskins). Truscott is full of bright ideas on how to civilize the locals. He is appropriately shocked, appalled and stiff-upper-lippy when Selima (Alba), a young Iban woman, is assigned to him as a paramour, a practice called the "sleeping dictionary" that is designed to ensure that the English learn the language as quickly as possible. However, as the Merchant-Ivory-wanna-be-ness of the film quickly indicates, Selima manages to rid Truscott of his pesky Western hang-ups and true love (and tasteful partial nudity of the late-night cable variety) soon blossoms. Theirs is a forbidden love, Truscott soon is taught, as the lovers are forcibly separated and Truscott is gently but firmly pushed into marriage with Gov. Bullard's wispy English rose daughter Cecily (Emily Mortimer). Trying to make a go of his loveless marriage, Truscott returns to Sarawak only to find Selima has borne him a son, and that both of them are in fact pawns of Bullard's scheming wife (played with gusto by Brenda Blethyn) who is still, 25 years later, less than thrilled with her husband’s own liaison with a Sleeping Dictionary.
Alba is no Meryl Steep in acting capability, but as her main role is to look exotic and be the unwavering object of Dancy's affections, she does just fine. Dancy shows quite a bit of range, as Truscott goes native, and completely sells Truscott as an idealistic romantic. Predictably, the best performances come from veterans Hoskins and Blethyn, and Mortimer is a pleasant surprise, stuck in the role of the girl who loves a man who doesn't love her back. While writer/director Guy Jenkin has not made his drama as affecting as it might have been, "The Sleeping Dictionary" succeeds in being entertaining and makes great use of its lush rainforest setting.
In terms of video quality, the presentation is excellent. The print was flawless, skin tones and blacks are perfect throughout, and the colors in particular are lush and vibrant. Martin Fuhrer's cinematography is a genuine treat, and the Sarawak locales practically jump off the screen.
In terms of sound, although mainly dialogue-driven, the 5.1 mix is surprisingly robust, giving excellent surround feel, particularly in creating the rainforest through use of the rears and sides. Dialogue is crisp and clean and easy to understand, and Simon Boswell's excellent score never overpowers the film, getting splendid support from the surrounds.
The direct-to-video release skimps on extras, however. I actually would have been very interested to hear Jenkin expound on why he chose this particular story to tell, and what filming on location in the Sarawak rainforest among the Iban was actually like. Considering the film bypassed theatres entirely, one might guess that Fine Line simply didn't feel there was a market for a fully loaded DVD, which is too bad -- extras could have added quite a bit.
"Dark Angel" fans (particularly guys) who miss seeing Alba onscreen each week will no doubt snap up the DVD, and romantics of both genders will enjoy "The Sleeping Dictionary" as a rental, but the no-frills release may not be worth buying unless you've got a Jessica Alba fan site or three.