Many people die alone, but the death of Joyce Carol Vincent occured in a state of loneliness that few of us can fathom. She passed in her London bedsit at some point before Christmas 2003, but her body lay undisturbed on her couch for three years before it was discovered by bailiffs carrying a repossession order. In front of a TV that had been continuously broadcasting to nobody for the past three years and surrounded by half-wrapped Christmas presents, Joyce's body had decomposed to the point where she could only be identified by her dental records. Such a startling discovery prompts so many questions – how did Joyce's decaying corpse go unnoticed as people walked past the room containing it every day? Why did none of her friends or family notice her absence?
These are the questions that encouraged Carol Morley to make Dreams of a Life. Putting out a call for anyone who knew Joyce Vincent, the filmmaker eventually managed to get in touch with former friends, work colleagues and lovers, all of whom were stunned to discover the manner of Joyce's death. The woman they recall was no isolated shut-in, but a beautiful, talented and vivacious character who picked up a posse of friends and admirers wherever she went. But basing her entire depiction of Joyce's character on the recollections of others inevitably makes for a somewhat hazy portrait. Memory is subjective and the interviewees who contribute to Dreams of a Life prove to be unreliable narrators, offering conflicting and speculative testimonies that often seem clouded by their own relationships with her. Nevertheless, watching Morley attempt to piece together this girl's life from the scraps of evidence she has been presented with is a fascinating process.
To avoid turning her film into a bland compilation of talking heads, Morley also intercuts between staged recreations of Joyce's final days, with young actress Zawe Ashton taking on this difficult role. These scenes are occasionally powerful – with Ashton bringing an aching sense of loneliness to her performance – but they often feel a little flat and poorly paced, with a couple of extended sequences in particular sapping all energy from the picture. Still, it was a bold gambit on Morley's past to try and depict the sadness of Joyce's life in her bedsit, gazing into the mirror as she remembers her younger days and slowly miming to songs that she once recorded in her attempt to embark on a singing career. Certainly, the juxtaposition between images of Ashton as Joyce in her element at a party or in the recording studio hammers home the devastating and inexplicable nature of her isolated demise.
The most affecting figure in Dreams of a Life is Martin, an instantly likeable character who dated Joyce for a number of years and remained her closest friend thereafter. Nobody in the film was closer to her than he was, but even he remained in the dark about the problems she was having, and he is heartbroken by the fact that she didn't reach out to him in her hour of need. It's so difficult for us to comprehend how a person can cut their ties with society so comprehensively to the point where they aren't missed after their death, and when that person is as popular and well liked as Joyce clearly was it becomes even more of a head-scratcher. But Joyce seemed to keep people at a certain distance throughout her life; she had friends, sure, but she didn't let anyone get closer than that, and while all of those interviewed in the film claim to have know her, they only knew as much as she allowed them to know. Perhaps this is why Dreams of a Life can only tells us so much about the woman whose tragic death defined her. Morley's film is a compelling, impressive and moving piece of investigative filmmaking, but the real Joyce Carol Vincent ultimately remains tantalisingly out of reach.
A solid extras package consisting of various interviews with Carol Morley, Zawe Ashton and the film's many contributors, as well as some behind-the-scenes footage. Morley's interesting 1994 short film I'm Not Here is also included.
Dreams of a Life is released on DVD in March 12th
Buy Dreams of a Life here