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.
How will Morley handle this shocking tale?
Engaging and poignant from the first shot; a bold, complex approach to documentary filmmaking.
Hard to recall a film that lodges in the memory quite like this. Unmissable.