In North London in 2003 Joyce Vincent died alone in her bedsit while watching television and wrapping Christmas presents. It was three years before her body was discovered, with the television still on and Joyce having “melted” into the floor. In those three years no one had raised the alarm over her disappearance, no one had come looking for her and she had seemingly managed to die completely unnoticed. Dreams of a Life tries to piece together who Joyce Vincent was and why her death went unnoticed, using only first person accounts in the form of interview footage alongside re-enactments with Zawe Ashton playing the ill-fated Joyce.
While it is tricky to fault Carol Morley on her technical capabilities in making a documentary, what she has made with Dreams of a Life is an incredibly speculative and gossipy feature that takes such a voyeuristic stance I felt like running away halfway through. Without a narrator or any other method beyond the interview footage for getting across the facts, Morley has given this film a very limited scope. Only people from Joyce’s distant past seem to be willing to be interviewed; we never meet her family or anyone who knew her around the time of her death, so any concept of what her life was like in the time immediately preceding her death is left to the wild speculation of old work colleagues.
While all of Joyce’s old acquaintances, quite rightly, describe her unnoticed death as a terrible thing and something no one should have to go through, they soon descent into gossiping about what she was like when they knew her, what they think might have gone on in her childhood (cue her Father getting some serious accusations thrown at him with no justification) and what her life may have been like leading up to her death. You can’t help but feel that for many the mystery is far more exciting than Joyce’s death is tragic.
The re-enactments are hardly objective either. While Zawe Ashton plays Joyce brilliantly, she is reduced to mostly portraying Joyce as a nostalgic loner, spending most of her time alone, singing to herself. It’s hardly the worst form of slander but certainly doesn’t seem like the best use of the documentary. What the film should focus on is how a woman came to be so isolated that no one noticed her death, not how she might have spent her time alone in her flat.
With all the speculation, gossip and judgement flying around I found myself learning much less about Joyce Vincent and much more about us as human beings. As I walked out of the cinema I was initially expressing how uncomfortable the film had made me but before long I too was speculating about what might have really happened. The message here should be to keep in touch with your loved ones and don’t let a friend fall through the cracks, not that someone is fair game for gossip if they’re dead.
Only one of the interviewees came out favourably in my opinion and that is Martin Lister (below) who was Carol Vincent’s long term-boyfriend years before her death. This was one man with fond memories of the deceased who seemed to genuinely miss her rather than simply wonder what might have happened. His final words in the film still ring in my ears and brought some much needed humanity to proceedings.
Dreams of a Life is an uncomfortable and arguably irresponsible documentary, but I’d be hard pressed to find another film which has made me feel so strongly this past year.