Dreams of a Life (2011)
Directed by Carol Morley, “Dreams of a Life” is a documentary film telling a real case of Joyce Vincent, a 38 year-old woman who died alone at her bedsit flat in London in December 2003, but her body had not been discovered until late January 2006. When the body of Joyce was discovered, it was badly decomposed; a TV and heating in her room were still working; and Christmas presents were neatly arranged beside her, although covered with the three-year old layer of dust. Joyce has always given the impression to be a well-spoken, vivacious, attractive and confident woman; giving this impression of someone “who is probably living somewhere a better life than anyone else around”, although her mysterious nature did surface from time to time. This made the Joyce Vincent case even more prolific in the UK, and it sparked national outrage, with people failing to understand how it is ever possible for someone so relatively young, attractive and friendly to die in one’s home in a populous area of London, and not be discovered for three years. Now, people, especially those living in big cities, like London, pride themselves of being well-connected, such as through Internet, and the case of Joyce shows a darker side of living in a world which is, although better connected than ever, is sometimes too self-absorbed to pay attention to the environment around.
“Dreams of a Life” tells its story through the interviews of people who used to know Joyce (her previous friends and colleagues), as well as through the flashes of Joyce herself, with the British actress Zawe Ashton taking the role to play Joyce. The result is nothing short of being powerful. We get to know not only the circumstances surrounding Joyce’s death, but also Joyce as a person (her hobbies and relationships are given ample focus). The documentary begins with the uncovering of sheer disbelief that the circumstances of the case could have happened to someone like Joyce. People who knew Joyce, her previous partners, Martin and Alistair, and her work colleagues, say how it was such a shock for them to find out that it was Joyce who died in such eerie circumstances, and some of them even initially refused to believe that it was Joyce who died. The fact that it took such a long time to find Joyce – three years – is also dissected. Here, the documentary emphasises the shock and the disbelief of the discovery, but, probably, it should have focused more on the tragedy at hand. This is because although it is, indeed, surprising that Joyce was found after three years since her death, it is not that unheard of for people to be found years after their death.
The documentary continues by showing glimpses of Joyce’s life. Her childhood was particularly traumatic as she lost her mother at a young age, and she has always been emotionally estranged from her father. Joyce was brought up by her sisters, but she also became estranged from them. The documentary powerfully recounts Joyce’s attempts of trying to fit in and to settle into the society surrounding her. She had steady jobs, some friends and lovers, but the interviewees also tell of Joyce as being somewhat of a “drifter”, preferring to flee at the signs of problems, rather than to confront them. Joyce’s ambition for a singing career is also powerful told, and Ashton, playing Joyce, demonstrates the inner loneliness and pain of Joyce as she sings along to karaoke in her flat. Although Joyce was relatively popular with everyone, working in such prestigious London establishment as Ernst & Young once, and even once meeting Nelson Mandela, her last year before her death is more of a mystery, pointing to her precarious financial and social situation. Thus, at the end, the documentary turns almost detective-like, even though it never actually speculates on the precise circumstances behind her death: be it asthma or post ulcer-operation complications.
“Dreams of a Life” is, undoubtedly, an important documentary, but, strangely, it is also the one that somewhat lacks sensitivity. It is a good thing that the documentary shows not only Joyce’s life, but also demonstrates to us that fraction of history which were the late 1980s and 1990s, especially the London music scene. However, some use of the upbeat and gay music in the film runs counter to the sombre and devastatingly sad topic of the documentary. Understandably, the director here wanted “to celebrate” Joyce Vincent’s life, rather to make a film solely about Joyce’s death, but, arguably, the director sometimes goes way too far in her “celebration”, even to the point of her “celebration” turning into Joyce’s life (death)’s exploitation. The bottom line is – most of the cheerful and “celebratory” music here is completely inappropriate.
The people being interviewed in “Dreams of a Life” tell what they think Joyce’s life was all about, rather than what it actually was all about. But, some of their replies are completely insensitive and even insulting (in a way they pass their judgements). Some of them manage to complete their interviews smiling and laughing, while giving the impression that they blame Joyce for the circumstances of her death. Joyce may have been partly responsible for the fact that she died alone, but the reality of living in the UK could be the culture of indifference, the “close-doors” mentality, that kind of “heightened privacy” environment, where people simply assume things and are reluctant to pry in people’s affairs, even if such people are very close friends and past lovers.
Although “Dreams of a Life” is too long for its topic, and completely lacks sensitivity in parts, it is also an important one, and is a “must-see” for everyone who is even remotely interested in the Joyce Vincent case. The documentary is thought-provoking in a way it makes one ask questions about such issues as loneliness in the world which is becoming ever more connected, and the value of reaching-out. However, perhaps, the most valuable thing here is that the documentary makes Joyce a living and breathing person, with her own fears, and dreams and plans for life, rather than just a shocking story you may read in a newspaper.