The story of Joyce Carol Vincent sounds like the stuff of screaming tabloid headlines. A woman found in her flat, dead and unnoticed for three years. Carol Morley’s documentary/reconstruction deserves much praise for refusing to use Joyce’s story either as a ghoulish piece of London urban legend or as a soapbox for a protest for our fractured society.
What Morley manages to do is find a middle ground. She doesn’t shy aware from the desperately sad nature of Joyce’s demise but she’s much more interested in finding out who this woman was. She has assembled a variety of people who Joyce knew and lived with, and loved, none of whom provide any definitive answers.
The film shows just how unknowable people can be. While there’s the occasional mention of how London lets people fall through the cracks, there’s also the inescapable fact that none of these people seem to know Joyce completely. Even the ones who knew her best were clearly only privy to a fraction of her life. Morley stitches their differing memories into a possible chain of events but all of them admit to their fallibility. We’re given various hypotheses, and towards the end there’s some definitive proof for her reasons for wanting privacy, but no one knows why she didn’t reach out for help. Not only that, but why did no one call?
Morley also has no interest in presenting Joyce as a saint or as nothing more than a victim. Joyce’s friends remember her as vivacious and friendly and a significant amount of time is spent discussing her bubbly personality and singing ambitions. But there’s no getting around the facts surrounding the end of her life. In the reconstructions Joyce is played by the excellent Zawe Ashton (Fresh Meat). These scenes are used more to keep the idea of her as a living, breathing person rather than a collection of anecdotes.
It’s a desperately sad story but it’s not an exploitative trawl through Joyce’s life. It’s a respectful and deeply moving piece that’s finally frustrating because there’s just no way of knowing what happened to her.
Verdict: Haunting and expertly handled, Dreams of a Life is a moving look at a tragic mystery.