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The Sleeping Dictionary

This surprisingly decent period drama/adventure/romance will probably gain more attention for its weakest link — Dark Angel's beautiful Jessica Alba (relax, fanboys, those nude scenes reek of a body double) — than for its otherwise fine cast and solid telling of a attractive, if formulaic, story. Hugh Dancy stars as John Trescott, a stuffy young Englishman sent, in 1936, straight from school to Sarawak, Malaysia, as an official administrar of the British Empire to a tribe of indigenous headhunters north of Borneo. In order to learn the native language as quickly as possible, Trescott is assigned a "sleeping dictionary" — a native girl (Alba) who performs wifely duties with the language lessons saved for pillow talk. Trescott falls in love with Selima, which isn't appreciated by his cynical superior (Bob Hoskins), and it doesn't take a whiz-kid to imagine what follows. Writer-director Guy Jenkins, a British television veteran, does nothing to revolutionize a familiar narrative, but his film is lush with (mild) exotic detail, well-paced, and intriguing, even if it doesn't rivet. While Alba is hard to take as an actress (and one plummeted into a period accent role, no less), she is extremely easy to watch. Meanwhile, Dancy is terrifically charismatic, recommending the film above its station. Also fine are Noah Taylor as the villainous Neville, Emily Mortimer as the incredibly (perhaps preposterously) gracious Cecilia, and Brenda Blethyn. New Line's DVD release of The Sleeping Dictionary features a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Trailer, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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