If I were to disappear from the face of the earth tomorrow, would anybody even notice? It’s not an uncommon question to ask of oneself in times of self-doubt or frustration with the course of life and relationships. The fragility of our existence as merely infinitesimal blips on a radar spanning millennia is a daunting prospect, and one that can make us feel hopelessly lost at times. Joyce Vincent may have felt that way when she died alone at the age of 38 in her small London apartment. It was almost three years before her decomposed body was discovered, surrounded by Christmas presents and still basking in the glow of the television set, too ravaged by the passage of time for even a cause of death to be ascertained. Who was this woman? How did she die? And why, most importantly, was it so long before anybody found her?
The story of Joyce is an immediately horrifying one to all who hear it. The idea of a body lying unnoticed in one of the world’s greatest metropolitan centres seems a ludicrous fiction, not the concern of reality. And yet this is precisely what greeted eviction officers when they forced their way into the apartment. An inquest returned no decisive verdict on Joyce’s fate, simply that foul play was unlikely; only speculation could offer theories as to what might have befallen the woman. The filmmaker Carol Morley was so shaken by the unanswered mysteries of this sad story that she found herself plagued by questions. Dreams of a Life is the outcome of her obsession, her effort at making some sense of so haunting and saddening a death.
The filmmaker Carol Morley was so shaken by the unanswered mysteries of this sad story that she found herself plagued by questions.
As the Christmas presents she wrapped soon before her death attested, Joyce was no disconnected hermit wilfully tucked away from the world. Morley spent over a year taking out advertisements in newspapers and on the side of a taxi in efforts to reach those who knew this woman in life, and had forgotten her in death. Those who came forward include ex-boyfriends and co-workers, former flatmates and friends. Many had not seen the story in the course of its extensive media coverage, others had and had dismissed it as a coincidence of name. Morley conducts her interviews in a traditional talking head style, remaining off-camera herself and speaking only to offer further facts to her interviewees. They are variously shocked, distressed, and angry to hear of Joyce’s demise. They paint a picture of her life, recounting intimate stories and whimsical anecdotes that prove just how close they were to her. How did none of them question her absence for three years? How could they all ignore her disappearance?
Morley intercuts the interviews with reconstructions of Joyce’s life and the discovery of her body, and modern day shots of the exterior of her apartment and its surroundings. The reconstructions of her life become more and more important as the film progresses; it eventually becomes apparent that this is Morley’s personal “dream” of Joyce’s life, as it were. With each growing fact, we get a fuller picture of who this woman was, and begin to build out own interpretation of what may have happened to her. Morley’s take is shot in a stylised manner, highly differentiated from the straightforward approach of her interviews. Here Joyce is portrayed by Zawe Ashton, known before this only for her comic roles in UK television. Paired with Morley’s confident direction in these scenes, Ashton’s convincing performance brings a likelihood to this particular possibility, as well as helping us understand yet more about Joyce. The film’s most moving scene features a magnificently staged rendition of a song about forcing a smile. It almost certainly never happened in reality, but this is a deeply affecting sequence that offers an insight into a mysterious existence as close to the truth as we can ever hope to come.
With each growing fact, we get a fuller picture of who this woman was, and begin to build out own interpretation of what may have happened to her.
Dreams of a Life is concerned more than anything else with how little we really know the people around us. Morley’s reconstructions offer a portrait of Joyce as a troubled and secretive woman hiding behind a façade of liveliness and joviality, the likely product of uncertain familial difficulties—none of her four sisters would agree to take part in the documentary—that raised yet more questions. It is known that she entered a refuge for victims of domestic abuse in the years before her death, after a troubled relationship with a man whose identity remains unclear. Her friends comment that she had a tendency to gravitate toward the wrong people; each of them laments not having kept contact as she began to drift away. The most interesting interviewee by far is Joyce’s boyfriend of three years, through whom a great deal of our emotion as an audience is channelled. His is the kind of round friendly face that beckons trust; he laughs often as he remembers Joyce, his joyful recollections of the good times they shared enticing us to smile too, as though we shared them. Morley refrains from exploiting his emotions as many filmmakers might, allowing him to lament his loss of contact without pushing him to accept blame in one way or another. When his brave face eventually crumbles and he succumbs to tears, it is difficult for us not to do the same.
Morley conjures an impression of this life that is distinctly melancholy. Known to all as a lively, jocular, carefree person, it seems that Joyce Vincent was distinctly alone in the world, unable to truly fit in, lost among the crowd. Her undiscovered body epitomises this entirely, dead amidst a thriving hub of life. Morley’s inability to comprehend how she remained in her apartment so long turns to a sort of anger throughout the film; her camera cannot keep itself from the large signs that decorate Joyce’s cityscape. Shopping city. Shopping city. Shopping city. Here was a young, vibrant, beautiful woman whom nobody ever knew for who she really was, and nobody, not even the government authorities who rented her apartment, took note of when she faded from the face of the earth. That Joyce Vincent died so alone is a true human tragedy; that she remained alone for so long afterward is a crime. Dreams of a Life is a powerful and uncomfortably upsetting fable of isolation in a modern age. It makes us wonder about ourselves: who will notice when we are gone? Who will we not notice? Chances are that Dreams of a Life will remind you of that person you’ve lost contact with, whom you’ve slowly drifted apart from. One day they’ll be gone, wouldn’t it be horrible to not even know?
[notification type=”star”]83/100 ~ GREAT. Dreams of a Life is a powerful and uncomfortably upsetting fable of isolation in a modern age that makes us wonder about ourselves: who will notice when we are gone?[/notification]