On one grim day in April 2006, housing officers entered the apartment of Joyce Vincent in Wood Green, London, to follow up on the thousands of pounds she owed in rent. There, the investigators found Joyce’s corpse slumped on the sofa, where she had lain dead for two-and-a-half years; so long that her body had become badly decomposed, making it impossible to determine the cause of death. Joyce was surrounded by Christmas presents she’d just wrapped, and her television was still on. Shockingly, Joyce was no shut-in senior citizen, and she did not take drugs or drink alcohol. Rather, she was a sexy, sociable 38-year-old woman with numerous sisters, a string of former lovers, and various friends and work colleagues. How could her death have gone unnoticed? How could Joyce have been so isolated? It is a story that’s heartbreaking, depressing and horrific, and it lingers in one’s mind.
When filmmaker Carol Morley read about Joyce’s death in the newspaper, she was shocked that the article revealed nothing about Joyce’s life; it didn’t even include a photo! Curious, Morley met with councillors and journalists in the Wood Green area, but failed to find the answers she sought. Subsequently, Morley ran ads in newspapers and on taxis seeking Joyce’s friends, family and acquaintances, hoping to cobble together their testimonies and piece together Joyce’s life preceding her lonely death. Dreams of a Life is the product of Morley’s hard work. An achingly poignant docudrama, the film is comprised of interviews with people connected to Joyce, who talk about her at great length. The interviews are interspersed with staged reconstructions featuring actor Zawe Ashton playing Joyce. Through the picture, Morley sets out to build a portrait of this woman, and she asks several provocative questions about sexual politics and about the society which let Joyce down.
In the 21st Century, it’s practically impossible to live off the grid. Cameras watch most everything we do, we have rent and bills to pay, we (should) keep in constant contact with numerous people close to us, and so on. It’s unthinkable that such a vibrant young woman as Joyce could go missing for almost three years without anybody realising. Any one of us would be heartbroken if we were deemed so expendable that nobody would notice our death, but, as Morley digs deeper into the mystery, heart-wrenching testimonies explain that Joyce may need to shoulder some of the blame. She was not antisocial, but she was somewhat of a difficult person, moving from place to place without notice, ignoring calls from her family, and pushing people away from her, to the extent that her friends simply assumed she was off having a better life than them when she was in fact lying dead in her bedsit. It’s a heartbreaking story, all the more poignant as everything comes into focus.
The dramatic re-enactments of Joyce’s life add exceptional dimension and power to the picture. Morley doesn’t stage the type of cheesy reconstruction scenes one sees in crime shows, nor does she show images of Joyce’s decomposing skeleton or anything similarly morbid. Instead, the re-enactment scenes of Joyce’s life display tasteful imagination and interpretation, underscoring accounts of the person that Joyce was prior to her premature death. As played by Ashton, Joyce is brought back to life as a vibrant, bubbly and popular woman full of warmth of exuberance, yet certain scenes convey that Joyce was ultimately an enigma, as emphasised by the often contradictory accounts from Morley’s interviewees. Joyce was also a budding singer, and Morley was able to dig up some of the very few recordings she left behind. When played, these recordings send a chill down your spine.
Morley’s primary focus is on the extreme isolation of the documentary’s heroine. Dreams of a Life is, at its core, a searing celluloid poem about loneliness, more specifically the type of loneliness that happens in a large city. London is often considered a bustling metropolis, yet Morley paints a vision of London as an emotional wasteland where singles live unhappy lives in small flats. Dreams of a Life falls short of perfection, however. Joyce’s sisters declined to be interviewed, and their absence leaves a huge hole and leaves a lot of untapped potential. It’s not clear why they refused involvement, leaving a huge question mark. It would’ve been interesting to have at least learn how Morley approached them, and hear their reasons for not wanting to present on-camera testimonies.
We’ll never know if Dreams of a Life represents a fair portrait of this enigmatic woman, but Joyce has definitely been immortalised through Carol Morley’s investigation. One must wonder how many other people there are in this world with similar circumstances. Dreams of a Life is a painful film to watch, yet it’s startlingly brilliant, overwhelmingly powerful and very moving. It’s a Christmas film with no uplifting message, and it is a documentary of our time which explores our fractured modern society and examines extreme isolation.