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The Sleeping Dictionary
cast: Hugh Dancy, Jessica Alba, Brenda Blethyn, Emily Mortimer, and Bob Hoskins

writer and director: Guy Jenkin

109 minutes (15) 2002 EV VHS retail
Also available to buy on DVD

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Debbie Moon
Malaysia, the 1930s: naive young Englishman John Truscott arrives to begin educating the jungle-dwelling natives, and is shocked to be presented with a 'sleeping dictionary' - an English-speaking native woman who'll help him learn the local language while performing, ahem, wifely duties. Initially, he sticks to the language lessons, but soon he falls in love with her, and then the real complications begin. Preserving the established order is far more important than personal happiness, for both the tribe and the English administrators, and John's boss has a personal interest in the matter - he has a marriageable daughter who'd do very nicely for John. But the two lovers can't be kept apart, and soon tragedy seems certain...
   The collision between colonial duty and the liberating effect of the tropics may not be the most original of themes, but writer-director Guy Jenkin weaves a solid and believable romance with an unusual backdrop and some dry humour, helped by excellent performances. Hugh Dancy's eager puppy John is more morally complex than you'd expect, and Jessica Alba makes the most of Selima, an educated woman trapped into an exploitative career. With a supporting cast including Bob Hoskins and Noah Taylor, and a terrific performance from Brenda Blethyn as John's manipulative mother-in-law, the film is scrupulously fair, as sympathetic to the white wives driven to paranoia and neurosis by jealousy as it is to the abandoned native paramours.
   It may not have the grandeur of some jungle movies - the surrounding forest is used more to suggest oppression than beauty, and the emphasis is definitely on the human scale - and the lovers' final star-crossed escape attempts do seem to drag a little. But The Sleeping Dictionary is a well-crafted, sometimes surprising, and always enjoyable film. If you're looking for a slightly unusual date movie, this might well do the trick.

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