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SLEEPING DICTIONARY, THE (director/writer: Guy Jenkin; cinematographer: Martin Fuhrer; editor: Lesley Walker; music: Simon Boswell; cast: Jessica Alba (Selima), Brenda Blethyn (Aggie Bullard), Hugh Dancy (John Truscott), Bob Hoskins (Henry Bullard), Christopher Ling Lee Ian (Jasmine), Emily Mortimer (Cecil), Eugene Salleh (Belansai), Noah Taylor (Neville), Michael Jessing Langgi (Melaka); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Simon Bosanquet; Fine Line Features; 2002/GB)
“A rather stiff soap opera romantic-melodrama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A rather stiff soap opera romantic-melodrama played out in the jungles of Sarawak, Malaysia in the 1930s. The primitive tribes in Borneo were ruled by the British as a protectorate from 1888-1946 and from 1946-63 it became a British crown colony. Henry (Hoskins) is the iron-handed regional governor of the territory who is savvy in the ways of the natives. He greets his assistant, an eager-beaver John Truscott (Dancy), fresh from the university, sent in 1936 to be part of the ruling party establishment. John’s father had been in Sarawak as a British officer before the war and if he didn’t die in battle would have returned and initiated an education plan for the tribes. John hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps and bring an English school education system to the jungle.

The custom is for the newly arrived bachelor English officers to take in their house a girl who acts as a ‘sleeping dictionary’ in order for the officer to learn the native language and thereby rule with authority. She performs wifely duties while teaching him the native language. The native girl has the advantage of speaking a fluent English (she’s half British/half Iban native–a product of another ‘sleeping dictionary’ relationship), and knows the rules of the game are that their arrangement cannot lead to forbidden love or marriage. The priggish John at first rejects this arrangement and then agrees when he is told that he is going against custom if he refuses. He soon likes the arrangement so much that he falls hopelessly in love with his attractive ‘sleeping dictionary,’ Selima (Jessica Alba).

Henry’s plain looking Oxford educated daughter Cecil (Mortimer), who has a heart of gold, arrives in the jungle to visit her stranger parents. Aggie, Cecil’s mom (Blethyn), refused to leave her husband alone with the native Iban women, a tribe of friendly headhunters, choosing to let Cecil at age 5 be sent alone to England for her education. No matter how Aggie tries to rationalize that decision for the rest of the story, she still turns out to be an unsympathetic figure. On the visit to the jungle, Cecil is courted by another British officer of a lesser rank, Neville, who hates the natives and their primitive country. Cecil wisely falls instead for John, not realizing the self-righteous chap has gone almost completely native and can’t get his ‘sleeping dictionary’ out of his head.

After Cecil’s return to London, John tries to marry Selima. But he misjudged how such things would be received by his government officials. The governor threatens him with a long prison sentence unless he stops talking about marriage. Henry blackmails John with murder charges stemming from the time he took the law into his own hands by encouraging a less friendly headhunting tribe to kill European miners with their poison darts. The miners poisoned the tribesmen because they wanted their silver find kept secret, which is the reason why John sought this kind of revenge. Meanwhile Selima is threatened with banishment or death by her people if she marries John. With little choice but to part, John returns to England and a year later marries Cecil. When Aggie’s daughter complains that John doesn’t seem to love her, Aggie offers her take on the meaning of love: “It’s companionship with feeling.”

In the meantime, the pregnant Selima marries the chief’s son, Belansai (Salleh), who marries her knowing the child’s father is John. When John returns to the jungle with Cecil to begin his school program, he finds he still loves Selima. Ordered not to visit her, John disobeys to see his son. Selima’s hubby misconstrues the visit and attacks John, attempting to kill him. This leads to a hokey and unconvincing conclusion. The film belabors the point of love over duty for country. It might have worked better if I didn’t find Dancy to be such a twit and Alba’s hot love for him seemed more like a plot device than believable. It was a familiar romancer, but was surrounded by the trappings of local color to make this ordinary tale seem exotic. There was fine camera work of location shots, such as the Sarawac rain forest. The film was never released in theaters and went straight to video. A wise choice! It’s easier to handle at home, especially when the film hit so many dead spots and never really overcame its overall tedium. Director Guy Jenkin’s work suffers from lackadaisical pacing and an inability to get full impact out of the emotional scenes.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”