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Now and then, I think we all wander down the isles of our video stores and suddenly notice a film with cast members we know or like, or even are quite big fans of, playing key roles, only we have never seen or even heard of the film. For me, this was one of those films. There is some serious talent involved here and yet until recently I had no idea this 2003 film even existed. Let’s take a look and see if this deserved a quiet video release or much more fanfare.

Sleeping Dictionary, The
Set in the mid 1930s, The Sleeping Dictionary centres around English Colonialism and how British settlers tried to civilise the Malaysian natives while teaching them a way of life which seems more appropriate to the settlers. In this period, young men were sent to Malaysia to practice administrative skills they had just learned in University. They would help manage one of the camps of natives at the time.

This is what lands young man John Truscott (Hugh Dancy) in Malaysia. He is an eager young man who claims to have more than a few ideas on how he can teach the natives to be more civilised. He is more than a little surprised when he arrives to find natives already speaking perfect English and working for the settlers. He is also blessed with the luxuries of a nice room and his own cook. All seems well to John until he meets Selima (Jessica Alba), a young and very beautiful local girl, who is to be his “sleeping dictionary.” This is a term used for women who would teach the settlers the language as well as sleep with them.

John finds this custom to be an insult and insists that he be taught the language without having to sleep with his teacher. The two become very close and soon enough fall in love. They want to get married, but it would never be allowed as it breaks the customs that the settlers have implemented. Instead, the two are pushed apart by increasing pressure on John by Governor Bullard (Bob Hoskins) to marry his daughter. This tangled wed stirs up a whole lot of trouble, as there are those who would go to extremes to prevent both marriages.

Looking at the film, it is not hard to see how this may have slipped through theatres (if it was in theatres, I don’t remember seeing it listed anywhere). It is the kind of film that often enjoys a limited run in arthouse theatres. That’s not to say it’s bad in any way however. In fact the film has many virtues that make it a fairly good night in.

Sleeping Dictionary, The
For starters there are the very spirited performances by all the leads. Hugh Darcy does well to show the naivety of the young men sent to Malaysia at first, and then also does well to see this man turned around and develop into the very different, matured man he becomes later. Jessica Alba didn’t have to do much to bring a sensuality to her roles as she is absolutely stunning! She does well to convey both the softness and strength of her character. Bob Hoskins also shines as the traditional English colonist, but the best performance here comes from Australian Noah Taylor, the villain of this piece. He is the perfect love-to-hate characters as he is sleazy, rude and does not care for the natives at all, and Taylor never lets us forget it.

Viewers may also enjoy the scenery of the film. The crew have done a good job with locations as the film is rich with jungle and river settings that are really beautiful and always provide a treat for the eyes. Those who are in to all that stuff will also enjoy the variety of costumes and make-up which combine to give the film a very enjoyable and classy look. The period feel is also clasped with a wonderful set of props and sets.

There is much to like in the film as it is fairly sweet and provides some likable characters getting into some very engaging peril, but there are a few down sides. Pacing may be a problem for many viewers. The film runs almost two hours and really takes it’s time, going from scene to scene at the risk of losing the interest it gained in the strong introduction during a slow middle act. If you stick with it, however, the film does build up to quite a strong finale. The film also suffers from Attack of the Clones syndrome as they have a good story and some respectable talent, but they risk blowing it with some dodgy scripting. The dialogue here really could have used a bit of work and may have some eyes rolling.

That said, the film may be a video release, but is a video release worth a look on a quiet night when you are looking for something that is romantic and equally dramatic. Although it is slow, the film tells a nice story with a cast who seems to want to do their best to get the most out of their character. There is also some wonderful production values as you will see some beautiful scenery and some great recreations of 30s fashion and architecture. It’s not Casablanca but it’s still a nice love story that is worth almost every bit of its running time.

Sleeping Dictionary, The
The film is presented with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and comes up quite well overall. There are no hang-ups with colour as they are all well proportioned and crisp with some very nice jungle colours coming out in wonderful clarity. All shadow detail is terrific and well balanced, in particular during darker scenes. There didn’t appear to be any artefact related troubles either. It is a very impressive presentation. A huge cut above other straight-to-video releases in relation to visual quality.

Three English audio tracks are included. A Dolby 2.0 as well as a Dolby 5.1 Surround track. Most surprisingly is the inclusion of a DTS 5.1 track. Both surround tracks are rich in surround activity which mostly consists of river, rain and jungle sounds as well as enhancing the music. All tracks are also clear on vocals and synch. There is no detectable distortion or interference at all. The winner of the tracks has to be the DTS as it is noticeably clearer and adds more punch to those scenes involving guns and percussion based music. The surround activity is also much more pronounced.

An almost barebones release. The trailer is presented and that is it. At 137 seconds it is of standard trailer length but gives away a little too much. Some of the things we find out about in the trailer we are not meant to know until later in the film. With the historical background and the beautiful locations, a featurette or documentary would have been great!

Sleeping Dictionary, The
The Sleeping Dictionary is a nice romantic drama which is set within a beautiful setting and displays a fairly good cast doing a pretty good job. However the script could have been better and the running time a little shorter. Otherwise, it’s a tidy piece of film-making. The DVD is of high quality in terms of audio and video. Both do all they can do to be clear and without flaw and they do pretty well, while the only additional feature being the trailer is quite disappointing. Overall, it is probably not quite ownership material, but worth a rental for sure.