Dreams Of A Life* Review

Film Still
  • Dreams Of A Life film still


Engaging and poignant from the first shot, Dreams of a Life is a bold, complex approach to documentary filmmaking.

In 2003, a woman named Joyce Vincent died alone in her North London bedsit at the age of 38. It’s a sad tale made almost unbearable by the knowledge that her body lay undiscovered for three years, TV blaring the entire time.

In this extraordinary documentary-cum-drama, director Carol Morley creates a portrait of Joyce using a combination of interviews, impressionistic reconstruction and re-imagining (Joyce is played in flashback by Fresh Meat star Zawe Ashton), and her own obsessive investigative research into the case. What emerges is a compelling parable that posits urgent questions about how we communicate with each other in today’s meta-connected world.

As with Clio Barnard’s excellent The Arbor, Morley's unconventional approach pays dividends, lifting the material out of the quotidian into a heightened, evocative realm. Candid interviews with people who knew Joyce – including colleagues, ex-boyfriends and a local MP – reveal competing, contradictory projections of the subject, almost Rashomon-esque in their divergence.

This verbal construction of Joyce is juxtaposed with bold stylistic visual flourishes, including scenes of Joyce watching programmes about herself on television in her flat, and bravely imagined moments from her childhood.

The statuesque, perfectly cast Ashton plays brings a radiant sensitivity to the role of Joyce. Almost always isolated in Morley’s frame and projecting an aura of tangible sadness, her ghostly presence illuminates a film which goes on to subtly explore a number of themes including race, music, city life and the sheer slipperiness of veracity.

If the film feels incomplete – Joyce’s family don’t feature, and the cause of death remains a mystery – it only adds to the feeling of emotional, physical and spatial dislocation evinced throughout. According to a quote from the film attributed to late poet, author and musician Gil Scott-Heron: "A pessimist is someone in possession of the full facts."

The full facts elude the director and her cast of interviewees, but if in telling this sad story Morley inspires people to reconnect with family and friends, there’s certainly cause for optimism.

View 5 comments

Tom Cottey

3 years ago
Wonderful film, hopefully this one will live on after the Christmas season and have a long life on DVD too!


3 years ago
It took a great deal of effort on my part to read on past the startlingly insensitive "I wanted to watch this with an open mind, but after the first ten minutes of interviews, I just wanted her to hurry up and die", but I did.

I think - like Mark Thomas on the Review Show, who criticised the film for "failing journalistically" (oh, the irony!) - you've missed the point of the film entirely. It is not intended to be a cut-and-shut account of the case. Luckily BBC's got Crimewatch for that kind of thing.

It is an impressionistic look at a number of themes - sex, family, race, London, memory etc... - viewed through the prism of a tragic, mysterious and almost totally incomprehensible case.

However you are - of course - entitled to your opinion. I just don't think I could disagree with you more!!


3 years ago
Have I gone mad? Do I lack a soul? Or was this just a poorly made and entirely unsatisfactory documentary into a case of seemingly huge potential.

I wanted to watch this with an open mind, but after the first ten minutes of interviews, I just wanted her to hurry up and die.

I had been very interested in this case when it came out in the newspaper - who is this girl? what was her story? who were her friends? and how did she remain undetected for three full years? I would hazard a guess that Morley thought the same. Ah! She thinks - there's a documentary in there. Definitely. And probably a good one too!! It's got it all - mystery, intrigue, unique case, and DA-DA-DAAAAA!!! a wider social context. KER-CHING.

Right - let's start doing some research!! Ah - no-one interesting wants to talk to me. Damn. OK - there's one person who can drop Gil Scott-Heron's name, and there's someone who seems like a borderline sexpestwithaheart, and um, and..... oh, someone from the council?

What unfolds on screen is testament to the fact that there are simply no answers in this case. Clearly a damaged human being, (cue ponderings, and what if's - irksomely peppering the film) she winds up out of contact with people of note such as 'the pair of workmates whose sum knowledge on the girl was what she wore to work, and the fact that she got a bit pissed at a work do' - and other such luminaries on the subject, before succumbing to a long standing illness (could have been asthma, could have been an ulcer) on the floor of her grimy flat.

I grew terribly weary of watching these ham-fisted reconstructions, and almost entirely made up early life flashbacks, and came away just bored of the whole undeniably sad case.

The only redeeming factor in the film is an interviewee - an ex boyfriend named Martin - who is a simple 'everyman'. His life lifted with the arrival of Joyce, he was surprised when she showed a genuine interest in him. His interviews are wonderfully candid and touching. He seems to be the only character who talks about anything other than Joyce being 'fit' or 'bubbly'. By the end of the film, Martin has revealed that she was the love of his life as a tear rolls down his cheek. A wonderfully touching moment as he reflects on what could have been. Then someone's mobile went off. It was not to be my night.

My advice would be to wait for the DVD, simply so you can fast forward through the genuinely rage inducing reconstruction of Joyce singing a bittersweet soul ballad into a hairbrush before crying.

Even then I'd treat with extreme caution - you'd probably get more answers from more interesting people by talking about the case with your mates down the pub.


3 years ago
25,000 hours of continuous use. A great television set. Wonder what brand.

Anton Bitel

3 years ago
There's definitely an advertising campaign in there for an enterprising electronics manufacturer. It's the TV that outperforms - and outlasts - not just the competition, but in some cases even its viewers.
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