John Truscott (Hugh Dancy; Black Hawk Down) is a young Englishman who travels to the Malaysian state of Sarawak in 1936. He hopes to implement his late father's plan to educate the native people, but the language barrier between John and the Ibans is just one stumbling block he has to overcome before he's taken seriously. His commanding officer Henry Bullard (Bob Hoskins)) offers a time-tested solution: a sleeping dictionary. The thought is that language can be most quickly learned in the bedroom, and John needs to have a strong command of the local language within six months. As John's contract forbids him from marrying for three years, the sleeping dictionary can provide other sorts of education as well. Selima (Jessica Alba; Dark Angel) offers her services as a tutor, which the uptight John declines. Raised to believe that sex before marriage isn't the domain of a proper Englishman, his reluctance makes life difficult for both of them. John eventually succumbs, and Bullard was right: he quickly adapts to the Iban language and culture. The side effect is, predictably, that he and Selima fall madly in love. When John proposes to her, Selima excitedly accepts and asks where they're going to run. John replies that there's no need to flee -- he knows his own people, and he'll make the proper arrangements. Right. Selima is jailed, and John stands accused of murder if he doesn't fall in line. Reluctantly, John is shipped back to England a free man, where he marries Bullard's anthropologist daughter (Emily Mortimer). The urge to return to Salawak to continue his work proves too strong to resist, but unfortunately for the newlyweds, other temptations are also irresistable...
I'm generally leery of movies that are subjected to these sorts of delays. I guess my logic is that when I look at the mediocrity that splashes upon thousands of screens, backed by promotional budgets that exceed the gross national profits of most of the free world, the titles that the studios try to embarrassedly sweep under the rug must be unbearably bad. I'm glad I didn't unjustly dismiss The Sleeping Dictionary. The romantic drama is not a genre I follow with any great enthusiasm, but I really enjoyed this movie, which takes established formulas and handles them in its own unique, distinctive way. The broad strokes are conventional, and sitting through the trailer may give the impression that The Sleeping Dictionary doesn't greatly diverge from formulas like "fish out of water gains acceptance" or "young lovers don't get along at first, fall hopelessly in love, are torn apart, and reunited". However, the screenplay, also penned by director Guy Jenkin, isn't reliant on rehashing endless clichés. These sorts of movies tend to be full of a lot of stupid people doing a lot of stupid things. None of the central characters fall into that trap, and though they each have their own character flaws and stumble along as the movie progresses, they're each intelligent and strong in their own ways.
I went into The Sleeping Dictionary unsure if Jessica Alba could carry a movie. Her delivery of even the limited dialogue she had in Idle Hands seemed unconvincing, and I'd pretty much written her off as a cute face without much talent behind it. I thought she was great as Selima in The Sleeping Dictionary, though admittedly it's a role that doesn't require her to be much more than sweet and seductive. Hugh Dancy, a British actor with whom I was previously unfamiliar, is the focus for the lion's share of the movie's runtime. He's up to the challenge, and the chemistry between the two leads is very believable. Bob Hoskins and Brenda Blethyn, both of whom have at least been nominated for seemingly every conceivable sort of award, get less screen time than Alba and Dancy but still manage to put in two of the film's most memorable performances. There's not a weak link to be found among the cast.
Rather than try to make Vancouver double for the film's Malaysian setting, The Sleeping Dictionary was shot on location in Sarawak. That decision allowed the movie's comparatively meager $15 million budget to be stretched significantly further than if had been shot elsewhere, and the presence of such gorgeous surroundings don't hurt either. Reportedly over six hundred Ibans participated as extras as well.
One of the better romantic dramas of recent memory, it's somewhat of a surprise that The Sleeping Dictionary bypassed theaters in favor of a delayed direct-to-video release. It's a very enjoyable movie, and hopefully it'll have the opportunity to attract the audience on DVD that it never had the chance to find in theaters.
Video: Despite spending a year and a half on Fine Line's shelf, the film certainly wasn't collecting dust. No specks of any sort or really any flaws at all were spotted in this stunning 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. It doesn't hurt that the movie itself is gorgeous thanks to the on-location filming in Sarawak and the talent of cinematographer Martin Fuhrer. Clarity and detail are both remarkably high, and the film's varied hues are presented beautifully. Some exceedingly light film grain is visible from time to time, seeming a touch more prominent during a conversation between John and Henry starting at the 57:07 mark and reappearing a few minutes later in the first shot of an ocean liner around 1:03:40. The level of grain doesn't seem jarring or wildly inconsistent, and I have no reason to doubt that this DVD presentation of The Sleeping Dictionary would've been a very accurate reproduction of whatever theatrical release it may have had under better circumstances.
The layer change at the 58:15 mark gave both of my DVD players, a set-top Toshiba SD-3109 and a portable Audiovox DVD-1500, a headache. The usual brief pause was noticeably longer than usual, particularly on the Audiovox player, which I thought had locked up entirely. My DVD-ROM, however, had no such troubles.
Audio: The Sleeping Dictionary boasts audio in DTS as well as the expected Dolby Digital 5.1. Romantic dramas are generally driven by dialogue, often making for an unengaging aural experience anchored squarely front and center. The Sleeping Dictionary's Malaysian setting provides more opportunities for ambiance in the rear channels than most, and the surrounds do an excellent job reinforcing the score by composer Simon Boswell (Dance with the Devil). There's a respectable amount of subwoofer activity as well. Dialogue is clear and generally easily discernable, though the British accents occasionally had me fiddling with the 'Subtitle' and 'Rewind' buttons on my DVD remote.
Alongside the pair of six-channel mixes is a stereo surround track, and English subtitles and closed captions have also been provided.
Supplements: Most movies that lay idle on the shelf for a couple of years tend to get short thrift on DVD, and The Sleeping Dictionary isn't any different. The only set-top accessible extra on this DVD release of The Sleeping Dictionary that's directly related to the movie is a two minute, twenty-eight second theatrical trailer. New Line has also tacked on trailers for Cherish (2:06), Storytelling (1:49), The Invisible Circus (2:07), and The Five Senses (1:57). All five trailers are presented in anamorphic widescreen at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
The DVD-ROM portion of the disc takes advantage of the InterActual Player. Aside from the obvious ability to play the movie from within the InterActual browser, there's also a "Hot Spot" link to New Line's website for The Sleeping Dictionary. As of this writing, the site isn't up, so I can't offer any comments on it.
The main menu is animated, featuring brief segments from the film overlaid with translucent, vertically scrolling text lifted from a dictionary. The remaining static menus follow a similar theme, featuring still images and text in the background. The disc's menus, like the movie itself, are enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The Sleeping Dictionary has been divided into twenty-seven chapters.
Conclusion: Slipping in under the collective radar of most viewers, The Sleeping Dictionary has behind it a great story, a solid cast, and very attractive visuals. The lack of supplements and its $26.98 list price may be offputting to some for a sight-unseen purchase, but The Sleeping Dictionary is well-worth seeking out as a rental and is definitely recommended as an addition to most any DVD collection. Recommended.