Dreams of a Life (2011)

2015 #151
Carol Morley | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK & Ireland / English | 12A

In 2006, the body of 38-year-old Joyce Vincent was found in her London bedsit, surrounded by Christmas presents and with the TV still on. Sad, but largely unremarkable, were it not for the fact that she’d been dead for three years.

Carol Morley’s documentary attempts to uncover the story of Joyce’s life, and how it reached a point where no one noticed she’d been gone for so long. It’s told mainly by her friends and colleagues (her remaining family, perhaps unsurprisingly, declined to take part), who paint a picture of an attractive, outgoing, personable woman; but also one who was a social chameleon, adapting to her current group of friends, and sometimes disappearing for months at a time. Later, her life seemed to follow a more tragic path, though details are scant for various reasons.

As it goes about encapsulating a life that ended so tragically, Dreams of a Life is surely one of the most heartbreaking films you’ll ever see. Consequently, I don’t quite understand the negative reaction you’ll find in some comments sections online, because I thought it was unmistakably powerful and affecting. I know this is a review of the film rather than other people’s reactions to it, but, well, as much as I found the film insightful and upsetting, some of those reactions angered me, so let’s have a go at them anyway.

Some people seem to view this as little more than a detective mystery, and are frustrated that Morley ‘chose’ to leave out details. I guess such critics have no understanding of things like confidentiality (when it comes to why Joyce was in a women’s refuge and what she disclosed there), rights to privacy (if the family don’t want to be interviewed, you can’t force them), the realities of investigating a real-life case (maybe some people who knew her in those final years just don’t want to be found), or human decency (Joyce led a fragmented life that came to a terribly sad end, and all you can think about is why she didn’t leave a few more clues around for you to deduce what happened and why?!)

Some people outright refuse to believe the story. “It’s implausible no one noticed her bills hadn’t been paid for so long.” Well, that’s what happened, kiddo. Whether it seems plausible to you or not, it obviously occurred. I don’t wish to tar an entire nation with the same brush, but the people who find these parts incredulous often seem to be American, generally because certain things work differently in the UK to the US. There’s a certain type of person who seems to believe the entire world operates in the same way as the US (not just Americans — thanks to the overabundance of US films and TV, it’s been observed around the world that there are people who think their own country has the same laws/rights/etc as the US), but obviously that isn’t true, and this is a case in point.

On the more considered side of the internet, there’s a reasonable debate to be found about the filmmakers’ right to tell the story at all. Joyce kept her life story secret even from some of her closest friends, and yet here it is being picked over in a movie for anyone to see. Is it moral to do such a thing? Should she not just be left in peace? Are the extraordinary circumstances of her death a good enough reason for this level of prying? Surely her death and how it came to occur needs to be understood, though, and surely the only way to do that fully is to examine her life. But is that not the business of inquests and the like, not films? But then, the filmmakers seem to have dug up information the inquest didn’t get close to unveiling. Perhaps the question is, when does society’s interest justifiably overtake the rights of the individual? Does it here? I’m not sure. Maybe.

One criticism I will side with is that the film is sometimes frustratingly put together. The accounts of Joyce’s childhood and early 20s are jumbled up, flitting back and forth in time. The viewer has to piece together the chronology; a challenge for no particular reason. Dramatic recreations of her life are largely pointless, though arguably necessary in a visual medium. Actress Zawe Ashton portrays Joyce in her 20s and 30s, but any scene where she’s required to give a performance — to do more than just walk around in a dumbshow recreation of that life — feel too much like a needless dramatisation, not the fact-based reenactment you’d expect or want from a documentary.

Nonetheless, these flaws can’t detract from the fundamental power of the story being told. If you come away from this thinking not about how sad it was for both Joyce and the people who knew her (especially Martin, especially in the film’s final moments), or what you should or could perhaps be doing better in your life, but instead being angry that it didn’t satiate your ghoulish need for full and frank revelations… well, I don’t know what to say about you, but it wouldn’t be very nice. Through this incident, Morley and her interviewees are really making bigger points about our society and our relationships. It’s no one’s fault, per se, that this happened to Joyce, but that it can happen is horrendous.

5 out of 5

Dreams of a Life is on Film4 tonight at 1:30am.