The Sleeping Dictionary, a mind-numbingly dull romantic flick, should be a lot better than it is. It has a relatively strong cast, particularly in supporting roles, it uses a reliable story arc that many people are familiar with, and it was filmed on-location in Sarawak which allowed it to stretch its $15 million budget further than it would if it was filmed in, say, Vancouver. But it’s not terribly good. Not with its characters not reacting in a believable way, the repetition that the story forces upon us, and the overlong running time.
Tell me if this sounds familiar. John (Hugh Dancy), decides to travel to an island nation filled with a bunch of natives whom he wishes to educate. That’s what his father did, after all, before his old man was killed in the war. The Iban tribe provides him with a “sleeping dictionary,” someone who will provide for him sexually — his contract doesn’t allow him to marry for three years, so this is important — and will also hope to teach him the language after six months. Jessica Alba is Selima, the woman tasked with doing these things.
They initially don’t get along, in large part because John, a good Christian man, refuses to share his bed with her because he’s waiting for marriage. But as time grows, his vow to God becomes less important, and soon enough, they’re in love with one another. He, an Englishman, and she, an Iban, is forbidden, and if you’re thinking Romeo and Juliet, you’re not alone. It doesn’t get to that point, thankfully, but their love isn’t allowed and this causes all sort of problems for the both of them.
In supporting roles are Bob Hoskins and Brenda Blethyn, playing a married couple who stayed in Sarawak after Hoskins’ character filled John’s role many years ago. They have a daughter, Cecilia (Emily Mortimer), whom they try to get to marry John, even though he loves Selima. It would make more sense, they think, considering she’s also from England and it wouldn’t be immoral or something. Keep in mind that this was the 1930s, so cross-culture relationships were weird and therefore wrong.
What doesn’t work are many of the different ways in which characters react during the course of the film. I get that they’re acting out of what’s appropriate at the time, but it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. John takes to the natives way too quickly, even going so far as getting them to kill a bunch of Europeans who were going to exploit the island for resources — just weeks after he arrived. And while all he did was tell the natives that they should defend their land, he gets blamed (by Hoskins’ character) for the murder of a bunch of his own people. How does that work?
It seemed like writer/director Guy Jenkin wasn’t quite sure how to create enough tension and turmoil, so he made logical leaps that might have made sense in his head, but didn’t translate to the screen. Overreactions are abound, people rarely act like you’d expect real humans to act, and the whole thing feels manipulative — even though you don’t care a lot because these aren’t real people.
And even if you somehow get past that, and you don’t care whether or not these people are real, the lead, John, is still quite the jerk. He eventually does marry Cecilia (spoiler alert!), but doesn’t treat her with much respect or love — because he loves Selima. But why did he marry Cecilia, and also, how did that three year probation run out so quickly? Because she was introduced and therefore has to be utilized. He does this for no actual reason, and then treats her terribly because he’s selfish and doesn’t understand how to care for another person.
Meanwhile, the relationship between Selima and John goes from 0 to 60 way too fast to be realistic. One night, they have a fight so she sleeps outside underneath the elevated hut, and then the next day, they’re the most amiable people imaginable. Things like this happen far too quickly, and yet the middle section of the film drags and seemed to contain a lot of filler. When you talk about pacing problems, this is a good example. The parts that needed length weren’t given it, while the times that could have easily been trimmed were extended instead.
The supporting cast is stronger than those given leading roles. When you have Bob Hoskins and Brenda Blethyn in the same movie, both of whom have been nominated for seemingly every major acting award, they can carry a movie. Hoskins steals each scene that he’s in, while Blethyn lets you know that her character is who is really in charge. Alba and Dancy are fine, but are nowhere near the actors that their elder counterparts are.
The Sleeping Dictionary isn’t a good romantic drama, although it isn’t a terrible film. It’s overlong, yet paradoxically still brief in the moments of importance, and none of the drama or romance works because of how poorly written and developed these characters are. But the scenery is gorgeous, the actors are strong, and you could do a whole lot worse than this. You could do much better, too, which is why The Sleeping Dictionary doesn’t get a recommendation, but it’s not a terrible waste of time.