Our rating: 2 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
There are some movies so haunting you cannot escape their seductive lure, despite problems with the storyline. As a Christian, I know adultery is wrong. So is fornication, and acclimating oneself to the world's standards. Placed in that light, the hero of The Sleeping Dictionary, John Truscott, is cast in a very unfavorable light. Yet despite this, we grow to like him and even feel remorseless at his life-altering decisions, which wound everyone around him and force him into a life of hide and seek. If there is any worth in this production, aside from visually gorgeous cinematography and some fine performances, it's to show how willful acts of folly and premarital sex can lead to life-long consequences. But due to the film's romanticizing of these elements, even with this worthwhile lesson I cannot recommend it.
In the mid nineteen hundreds, Britain still retains a large hold over the India and African provinces. In order to fulfill his father's dying wish to bring civilization to the jungle, John Truscott (Hugh Dancy) goes to the jungle wilds as a member of Her Majesty's forces. When he arrives, he discovers the natives are far different than envisioned. They cling to age-old traditions such as the "sleeping dictionary," in which a woman offers herself as a language tutor to an officer of his choosing. While educating one another by day, they share the same bed by night. It's a practice, he's assured, that proves very progressive. When the language is learned, the girl returns home and awaits the next officer in need of her talent. John is encouraged by the governor of the small village, a man by the name of Henry Bullard (Bob Hoskins) to accept as his sleeping dictionary a girl named Selima (Jessica Alba). Clinging to his Christian-raised belief that sex should be saved for marriage, John demotes her merely to a dictionary.
The two begin quarreling, and Selima is disgraced by his unwillingness to fulfill their unwritten contract. Rather than allowing her to sleep in the jungle, John asks her to return to the house. Eventually his resolve is broken down and the two begin a passionate affair. During this time, Bullard's accomplished daughter Cecil (Emily Mortimer) returns to the jungle after a twenty-year absence. Due to her mother's unwillingness to leave her husband's side (we learn later this is due to his own "sleeping dictionary"), her mother dispatched the little girl to school in England when she was only five years old. Holding an uncomfortable relationship with her parents, Cecil clings to John as a form of moral leadership. The young British officer is pressured to ask her hand in marriage, with the intention of a long engagement. But he has fallen in love with Selima, a practice forbidden in both native and British culture. Their love will be tested by persecution and trials, through which John must also struggle to bring civilization to the wilds.
The Sleeping Dictionary is a visually stunning piece of cinematic history which strangely enough never made it to theatres, but was condemned to premier on DVD. The acting is quite remarkable on the part of all involved, and the screenplay is surprisingly deep. The relationship, which is based on pure primal instinct and physical attraction, actually manages to convince us of the love binding the main characters together. Jessica Alba has proven herself more than capable of carrying off the role of a leading lady. This is out of the norm for Hugh Dancy, who usually participates in stiff upper class costume dramas such as Daniel Deronda, but he's very apt in persuading the audience toward his point of view. Even so, I was a little disappointed to see him so openly embrace an immoral role. The movie suffers from sexuality, nudity, and occasionally profane language. Some of the dialogue is meant to be humorous, and most of the time it is -- such as a British officer complaining of leeches ("I don't know where I bloody found them, because I was in the middle of the bloody jungle at the bloody time!"). Dialogue contains crude references to the male anatomy, three or four f-words (an officer demands his concubine translate "f-ing jungle"), and general profanity. Natives die of poisoning, are shot with deadly darts, and one man is shot. An officer threatens to rape Selima where John can watch, among other threats. Blood comes out of the mouth of a dead man. A woman shows evidence of violence, and a man is struck over the head several times.
Most of the sexual content is contained in a montage of scenes about half an hour into the production. After that, things are implied or referenced but rarely exploited. Several instances of female nudity, however, permeate the film, and the sex is fairly graphic. The topic is also talked about on numerous occasions. I won't bother reprising all of them, but rather point out the highlights. Never once is it perceived as immoral. Even John's later wife seems relieved he's had "practice," because she doesn't know "what to do." In the end (SPOILER) John runs off with Selima. This is "okay" because his wife gave him "permission," and her husband has had to flee for his life. It doesn't say anything for his character, leaving a pregnant woman behind in order to chase a former lover through the jungle. The only possible moral we can gain from this is the exquisite pain everyone suffers. Both lovers have their hearts broken. Why? Because they shared the marriage bed without the protection of marriage.
Sex cements a relationship, it does something to you spiritually. To wrench two people apart is not only unbiblical, but painful. The result is ruination, fatherless children, and never being able to keep a family together. Because of this relationship, numerous lives are ruined. John's wife is left without a husband, knowing their love was only on the surface, a mere existence together while he longed for his concubine's arms. Selina's husband is charged with attempted murder (his retaliation for being John was pursuing his wife) and forced to flee the country. At the end, though some part of us is happy for their renewed relationship, we cannot help but view all the bodies they left in their wake. For a Christian, that's impossible to forgive.