Dreams of a Life Review

The story of Joyce Vincent, whose corpse lain undiscovered in her bedsit for three years.

In 2002 Carol Morley made a documentary short entitled Everyday Something. Narrated by the late radio DJ John Peel in his typically laconic fashion, it was a “torn from the headlines” film sharing extraordinary stories from news clippings Morley had collected over the years. These were tales both comical and shocking: one involved a Claudia Schiffer-obsessed man who assaulted his parents when they were unable to answer his trivia questions about the model; another detailed the breakdown of a marriage owing to the wife’s daily rearrangement of their furniture. They would be depressing if they weren’t so funny or, more importantly, empathetic. There’s the woman who, after four failed attempts to get her washing machine fixed, takes the fifth repairman hostage. Or the wife who stabbed her husband, not to kill him but merely to show how upset she was that he’d forced her to go jogging in order to lose weight; she even called the emergency services for advice!

Almost a decade later Morley has returned to this “torn from the headlines” approach for her new feature, Dreams of a Life. The focus this time around is a single story and, as you’ll see, there’s isn’t a great deal of inherent humour to be found. In January 2006 the body of Joyce Vincent was found in a self-contained North London bedsit. Her corpse had lain there for almost three years, undiscovered by the authorities and unmissed by any of her family or old friends. The level of decomposition was such that she had to be identified using dental records via a holiday photo. It also meant that the inquest into her death had to record an open verdict; whilst no foul play was suspected, it was impossible to identify an exact cause. Further chilling details were revealed by the inquest, such as the television still being on when the body was discovered, continually playing to her corpse as everyone else went about their business and just forgot about her.

Morley discovered the story in the Sun newspaper, reportedly thanks to a discarded copy left on the London underground. Understandably intrigued – perhaps more than most given her collection of news clippings that made Everyday Something possible – she set about finding out more. Small ads were placed in various newspapers and online, whilst a larger copy was plastered onto the side of a black cab. Morley had used this technique in the past, for her 2000 film The Alcohol Years, a piece of autobiographical documentary in which she traced her own ‘lost years’ on the Manchester club scene during the mid-eighties. In many ways Dreams of a Life is doing the exact same, except here it is those of Joyce Vincent which require documenting. She had friends and she had four sisters, yet somehow she was able to disappear out of existence. This is filmmaking as detective work, but with the ‘why was this allowed to happen?’ question being just as important as the ‘how’.

Vincent’s family requested full anonymity when Morley approached. The various authorities – and the use of the Freedom of Information Act – met with a similar response. It’s hard not to assume a high level of guilt and embarrassment from both. Indeed, one of the first questions to crop up queries the lack of a genuine pursuit of unpaid bills and taxes. The bedsit’s front door concealed a mountain of mail, but does it really take almost three years for someone to gain legal entry? (Vincent’s body was eventually found after all those years owing to a repossession order.) And so with no contribution from either family or in an official capacity – excepting local MP Lynne Featherstone – it is left to a pair of journalists who initially covered the story and those who answered Morley’s ad to provide the testimony.

The first reaction, in every case, is that nobody squared the Joyce Vincent of the news story with the Joyce Vincent they had known. Everyone had read about this most unfortunate of cases – it had attracted international media attention, after all – but there was nothing in it that had forced a connection between the reality of the situation and their own memories. The media coverage came unaccompanied by a photograph and, of course, it’s tale was an incredibly bleak one. Their old friend was “stunning” and “lovely”, in other words not the kind of person to whom this kind of thing happens. Indeed, the initial picture we get is of a young woman of Caribbean descent who worked in the city, enjoyed partying and was constantly receiving male attention. We learn later that she once met Nelson Mandela and had casually chatted on the telephone to Isaac Hayes for almost an hour. It wasn’t in her nature, it would appear, to end up – or, more importantly – die alone.

Faced with the fact that it was indeed their old friend who was subject to the news stories, many come up with their own theories and ideas as to what may have happened. She didn’t do drugs or drink heavily, but she did have asthma and never took it seriously thus prompting one speculative notion. Another interviewee can only suspect that she was murdered such is his inability to accept that Vincent could have died in such an isolated manner. Of course, these theories remain just that and Morley never once attempts to lure the viewer into a particular train of thought. If anything it’s the complete opposite with Dreams of a Life coming across as not quite fully constructed. As an audience we can pick and choose which thoughts and recollections we want to lend weight to; everything is available to us that perhaps wouldn’t have been there had Morley gone for tighter, more forceful framework. Not that any such detective work will provide all of the answers of course. Indeed, part of the impact of the film is that so much must remain unknown. We know what happened, but the how and the why of the situation will never be fully understood – and that only makes it all the more chilling.

With that said, Dreams of a Life does solidify into a stark portrait of loneliness. Despite the early stages revealing a Joyce Vincent who was outgoing and social, a series of events do seem to force her into a more withdrawn status. Her friends oftentimes know only part of the story and we see them to react to revelations that Morley has unearthed from other participants. Once again speculative elements come into play, but there is a definite shift towards a more mistrusting, less communicative frame of mind. We hear of potential issues relating to identity issues – was Vincent ashamed of her class and her race? – and of her relationship with her parents, particularly the revelation of her mother’s death at a young age and the manner in which her father broke the news almost matter-of-factly. There are also hints of abuse, both as a child and in relationships as an adult (the bedsit in which she died was a refuge for those escaping domestic violence), but again hard facts are hard to come by. Interestingly it places Vincent in a position whereby she becomes both an individual (thanks to the personal testimony, photographs, some archive audio recordings and dramatised sequences with Zawe Ashton) and a kind of everywoman (thanks to us never truly being able to know her) indicative of the bigger issues surrounding her death.

It is apt, therefore, that Dreams of a Life is gaining its theatrical release just in time for Christmas. It’s the season when fears of loneliness and isolation figure the largest, emphasised in the film by the perversely fitting detail that Vincent died on her sofa next to a pile of freshly wrapped Christmas presents. Some would say that her death is the logical conclusion to an increasingly self-interested society in which we neither know nor care about our neighbours. Yet I get the impression that Morley doesn’t see things quite this way. For her, Dreams of a Life doesn’t represent an ending, rather it’s a wake-up call, a means of raising awareness. She may not provide viewers with the happy ending expected from conventional seasonal fare – the “Because I love you” line towards the very end is absolutely devastating and lingers long afterwards – but there is some hope in there. There has to be.

Further information, including screening times, can be found on the official Dreams of a Life website.

Anthony Nield

Updated: Dec 15, 2011

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