Joyce Carol Vincent died in her flat in 2003. An unmarried forty year-old woman living alone in a less-than-luxurious one bedroom London bedsit, and surrounded by unopened Christmas presents, it would be three years before her remains (now simply decomposed to that of a skeleton), would ever be found -- and only then able to be identified by dental records.
When a tabloid ran the story with a characteristically sensationalist bent (“WOMAN DEAD IN FLAT FOR THREE YEARS”) only scant details emerged about the mysterious “Joyce” at the centre of this morbid tale, so much so that those closest to her failed to recognise the woman being discussed. The story briefly became a focal point for some areas of the press and local politicians warning of the dangers of the atomization and essential loneliness of early twenty-first century society. But Joyce nevertheless passed fairly rapidly into the annals of history as a curio, a warped cautionary tale, barely more than a Jane Doe – and one who had the indignity to pop her clogs with the television still blaring at her in the background to boot.
Carol Morley’s documentary, “Dreams of a Life,” is a response to such an unfortunate set of circumstances, and a bright light shone on an outwardly unremarkable life that would have otherwise gone recorded in the history books as an anonymous cadaver. Stamping out similar ground to Clio Barnard’s “The Arbor” before it (which performed a comparable function in exhuming the unknown legacy of playwright Andrea Dunbar), the film is a quiet surprise, with wider implications than the superficial story would appear to suggest.
The exact cause of Joyce’s untimely demise is never spelled out, but the film is not particularly concerned with the whys and wherefores of such an unknowable conundrum. Instead an impression of the woman is built up through the several interviewees that Morley managed to track down through means of inventive advertising, be they former lovers, old flatmates, or just occasional work colleagues, and these unvarnished interrogations are left to speak for themselves. The director wisely withholds any imagery of the mysterious woman at the centre of her film, and when we see Joyce’s face for the first time – vivacious, photogenic, teeming with brio, and crucially alive - it’s genuinely disarming.
What follows is Morley’s impressive substantiation of Joyce’s life merely through word-of-mouth, and not – thank the Lord -- Nick Broomfield-style personal blustering. Revealing an existence of seemingly failed ambition and strained identity, Joyce emerges not as a beguiling, or doomed, victim of her own making, but instead a relatable collation of hopes and desires cut tragically short.
Joyce appears as a multiplicity of personalities through various character portraits, which gradually reveal different facets of her personality. They're comfortably the film’s trump card and main strength. Some appraisals are pernicious and patronizing of her musical abilities, others flattering and overly apologetic. Some of the anecdotes are more compelling than others. Some are bizarre transgressions about birthday parties queered by embarrassing stripograms. Some are speculations about Joyce’s uncommon racial heritage, and her mercurial attitude towards the men in her life. Most importantly, for all the talking heads, though Joyce’s final months remain shrouded in mystery and never fully resolved, we learn of the human being behind the over-zealous headline. It’s some feat.
These interviews are off-set by a series of dramatic reconstructions of specific moments in Joyce’s life, in large part with actor Zawe Ashton taking the role of Joyce. Given the dearth of available footage, these dramatic, and often imagined, recreations were presumably needed to flesh out what couldn’t be provided with the existing scant pictorial leftovers and cursory circumstantial evidence. Ashton’s performance is fine, and these segments are uniformly well-shot, but necessarily speculative, often distracting and a touch too theatrical.
By the same token, when it politicizes Joyce’s death, and forces connections that should be obvious to any discerning audience member, it comes up a little short. To this end, Liberal Democrat MP Lynne Featherstone crops up, barks out some platitudes about the lack of communal solidarity in her own constituency for five minutes or so, and is never heard from again. It’s an unnecessary flourish in an otherwise deft and subtle piece of work.
The film works best when telling the story of a forgotten life in all its organic specificity, without feeling the need to slip into J.B Priestley-style moralising about the state of contemporary society, and why Joyce’s death could have been prevented. While the true-life tale is, of course, very moving, it’s doubtful that its particular concerns are unique to the early twenty-first century, not least in a faceless and hardly ingratiating city which has always been dogged by homelessness and criminal activity. Current UK Prime Minister David Cameron has repeatedly tried – and failed – to institute a laughably thin conceit dubbed “the big society” (essentially a woolly government-mandated directive to “love thy neighbour”) which the vast majority of Britons shrugged off almost immediately.
Truthfully, Morley might well have thumbed her way through a copy of The Sun on any given day of the week and come up with a similar set of characters for ten more documentaries; but her role here is less of the mortician than curious inquisitor. She has also the good decency to excise all of the self-importance that clogged the arteries of another recent British documentary which claimed to rescue ordinary people from the enormous condescension of posterity, Gillian Wearing’s wearying and look-at-me “Self Made,” which instead shucked off its quieter moments in favor of ridiculous and glorifying actor-speak to embarrass even Lee Strasberg.
“Dreams of a Life” does not have designs to exist merely as a forensic autopsy, nor is it an over-sentimental sop as relayed by those closest to the deceased, and it’s the stronger for it. In certain areas, though, its lack of contextualization causes some small rumples. Some obvious practical assertions raised by the interviewees (like why Joyce’s landlord didn’t come calling after three years) are touched on, but left lingering.
Similarly her much-discussed, though fitfully present, sisters are mentioned by most of the interviewees but never interviewed, nor is their absence sufficiently explained. Morley’s largely dispassionate interweaving of self-contained anecdotes from Joyce’s life can sometimes take a backseat to getting the money shot -- as it dawns on Joyce's long-suffering on-again/off-again boyfriend that the woman he cared for may well have been the love of his life, the camera dips down and dwells on his emotional breakdown for a touch longer than it perhaps needed to.
These minor niggles aside, for the most part the gambit at the heart of “Dreams of a Life” pays off. It is clearly an impassioned work, but one that would be bigger – and better – if it had the confidence to focus exclusively on its smaller moments. But its ambition cannot be faulted. [A-]