The puzzle is, why did this film go directly to video and why isn't it a better film?
Fineline apparently relegated this to the video bins because of a crowded release schedule, but more likely because it had just one American star in it, Jessica Alba, and her TV series, "Dark Angel," had been canceled, meaning she no longer brought any "heat" to the project.
That's a shame, because this film is light years better than most direct to video releases.
While the plot is quite complicated, it is basically about a young Englishman, played by Hugh Dancey, who goes out to Sawawak (Borneo) in the mid-thirties to follow in his father's footsteps and bring the benefits of a good English education to the natives and headhunters of the region.
He needs to pick up the language, though, and thus is assigned a "sleeping dictionary" a fetching young local woman who will teach him the native lingo, while giving him an education in bed at the same time. While that may sound as contrived a plot as you could find, it is probably grounded in fact, and certainly grounded in solid, British upper class hypocrisy of that day, which, taking into account the fact that he'll be there for three years, sees no reason why he can't avail himself of the local talent to satisfy his sexual needs. In fact, when he initially rejects the beautiful Jessica Alba, they offer him a young man, he being the product of British boys schools and all that.
After a very brief period of conflict, Dancey and Alba fall head over heels for each other, decide they want to marry, and find themselves in hot water from that point on. The film goes on to rightfully bash British upper class racial prejudice, but never quite deals with the key issue facing Dancey's character. Does he ever catch on that the education he wanted to bring to the natives is the same education that says, one Englishman is worth a thousand natives?
Anyway, the film, written and directed by Guy Jenkin, is fairly well scripted, well directed and absolutely beautifully shot. Word is, it cost just $15 million, but it has the look of a much more expensive picture, definitely not some cut rate direct to video thriller. This is not some prison women in cages film shot in the Philippines.
There are some good characterizations here. Bob Hoskins starts out very strong as the cynical governor of this province, but then is very under utilized. Brenda Blethyn is fantasic as Hoskins wife, a manipulative upper class snob who is the real villain of the story.
But there are script problems here. Dancey and Alba fall in love far too quickly, skipping over a lot of character build up which would have made us care for them a lot more than we wind up doing. There is sympathy for them, though, because of the obvious class and racial biases in the British empire. But you get the feeling there are a lot of missed opportunities here.
Perhaps the biggest flaw the film has are its two stars, though. Dancey,pretty much unknown in America, seems only adequate to me. He brings no real passion to the role of the young idealist.
The real enigma, of course, is Jessica Alba. Although as beautiful as any young actress in Hollywood today, she has yet to prove that she can actually act, and with every successive missed opportunity, she is building up a body of work that says maybe she can't. Her first feature staring role was in a flic called "Paranoid," in which she was frankly just plain dreadful. She has had supporting roles in a couple of other films, but the pictures were so dreadful you couldn't hang much of the blame on her, except maybe in her choice of roles. Her big break came in the James Cameron produced TV series "Dark Angel," which got its wings clipped after two seasons. In it, Abla was forced to play a rather depressing character in a depressing show and she could not get deep enough into it to make it the kind of hit that Jennifer Garner became in "Alias."
In Sleeping Dictionary, Alba definitely looks like someone any man would want to sleep with, but other than that seems in many ways miscast completely. I read one review here that mistakenly places this movie in South America. I wonder if the producers made the same mistake. The days when any dark skinned actress can play any dark skinned character, from Latino to Asian to Arabic, appear to be over to me. Alba didn't seem like a resident of Borneo. She in many ways seemed like a wise ass girl from East Los Angeles.
Then there's the main problem, her delivery of lines. Alba is excellent when she keeps her mouth shut. No, really, she does reaction shots extremely well. Her emotions play out beautifully on her face. It's when she has to talk that she often finds herself in trouble. In this film, much of her delivery of her lines was just short of bad.
More importantly, it wasn't good and that makes this film another big missed chance for Jessica Alba. It's too bad, because she was in part hampered by an under developed character, which may have been hampered by a restricted budget. Ten more minutes showing us who the main characters really were might have made all the difference in this film. But Alba still would have had to be good enough to handle the added material and I still don't know if she is.
She supposedly has another film in the works in which she plays some kind of hiphop dancer. Hopefully, at least playing the right race, she'll shine. But she just misses the mark for me in "Sleeping Dictionary" as she has missed it in everything she's done since "Flipper."