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by Jonathan Rothwell

Film Review: Dreams of a Life

Joyce looks out from the window of her lonely bedsit. Courtesy of Dogwoof

If you disappeared off the face of the earth tomorrow, would anyone miss you? This is the question Dreams of a Life asks its audience, and it’s a potent one: most of us hope that we’re surrounded by enough friends, colleagues and close family members in our day-to-day lives, that if we were to simply vanish, someone would make an effort to find out why.

In 2006, film director Carol Morley first read about Joyce Vincent in a copy of the Sun discarded on an Underground train. In her own words:

I first heard about Joyce when I picked up a discarded copy of the *Sun* on a London underground train. The paper reported the gothic circumstances of her death – "Woman dead in flat for three years: skeleton of Joyce found on sofa with telly still on" – but revealed almost nothing about her life. There was not even a photograph of her.

By her own admission, Morley became “haunted” by the image of the television flickering over Joyce’s decomposing body. How, in this bustling city of eight million people, with Ally Pally blaring radio waves above her and shoppers scuttling about beneath her, could Joyce’s death have gone un-noticed for at least two years? How did it take a repossession order and a group of bailiffs to discover her skeletal corpse? The story is desperately sad, outrageous, disgusting, and a sad indictment of the impersonal nature of today’s neighbourhoods, all at the same time.

Morley began an investigation, placing adverts in newspapers and on the side of a black cab: “Did you know Joyce (Carol) Vincent? Born 1965.” She registered the web address joycevincent.com, and this eventually led to contact from people who had known Joyce in the eighties and nineties–most of whom had assumed that she was living a much better life than they were.

Dreams of a Life is the result of the investigation. The bulk of the film is interviews with colleagues, school friends, ex-boyfriends and housemates, peppered with mostly-wordless reconstruction sequences with Fresh Meat actor and playwright Zawe Ashton portraying Joyce.

Occasionally, these reconstruction sequences end up looking a little surreal: for instance, Joyce sitting in a taxi with an advert bearing her name and birth year on the side. These aside, though, they’re tastefully conceived, delicately filmed, and Ashton nails it. She’s a terrific actor, and the performance she gives is wonderfully understated.

Through the interviews, and the reconstructions, Morley gradually builds up a fascinating portrait of Joyce Vincent. We learn that Joyce was an attractive, high-flying office worker, with pipe dreams of becoming a professional singer. At one point, her on/off boyfriend, Martin, recalls that someone told her she was a lot like Whitney Houston–to which he responded, “she’s more attractive than that!” She’d gone to dinner with Stevie Wonder, met Nelson Mandela at a tribute concert, and been introduced to Gil Scott-Heron.

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These parts make the mystery of Joyce’s disappearance all the more disturbing. It becomes clear, as the film progresses, that she had a few skeletons in the cupboard: her mother had died when she was a child, and she’d spent some time in a women’s refuge in the late nineties after a string of abusive boyfriends. She had a history of hospital admissions, and had trouble maintaining stable relationships. Her circles of friends rarely, if ever, intersected.

It’s tempting to feel frustration during the final twenty minutes of the film: Morley was only able to find sketchy details of her last few years. We will probably never know how she died, and we’ll never be able to measure how true the film is to the real Joyce Vincent. We know that she spent some time working for a cleaning company while sleeping on Martin’s sofa, all the while telling him she was working “in the City”–a fiction that was dispelled when he ran into Joyce sitting on a bench on Shepherd’s Bush Green in the middle of the day.

Regardless of this unavoidable fuzziness, the film’s final scenes are somehow simultaneously bleak and uplifting. The final shot, in particular, left me walking out of the cinema flabbergasted as to how Morley had found it–I won’t give it away, because it’s simply incredible.

The most astonishing thing, however, is how much Dreams of a Life lodged itself in my mind. I went to see it at my local cinema on a cold Wednesday evening in December (ironically, after wrapping Christmas presents, which is what Joyce was believed to have been doing prior to her death.) I couldn’t get this woman out of my head: on the bus back home, sipping coffee in the kitchen the next day, on the Tube, on the train back home for Christmas: I found the image of Joyce Vincent, on her sofa, in front of BBC1, impossible to avoid.

It made me think of people I hadn’t seen in a while, perhaps in hope of averting someone else meeting Joyce’s fate. Even now, I cannot forget her, and this is why, in my view, Dreams of a Life is easily one of the best British films of last year.

The film is thorough without being voyeuristic, and poignant without being melodramatic. It’s definitely worth watching at the cinema while you still can, because this quiet, unassuming documentary, spawned from a discarded tabloid on the Tube, is, quite simply, beautiful.