I can’t get Joyce Vincent out of my head. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, either; her speculated last moments must be occupying the minds of people all over the country now, as we set out to trace old friends and vow never to ignore another phone call from our overprotective parents. There’s a painful irony to Joyce’s legacy: while strangers struggle to forget the life of a woman shrouded in mystery, her death went unnoticed by those who should have remembered.
Dreams of a Life is is the product of director Carol Morley’s five-year obsession with a tabloid headline that caught her eye, sweeping her into the fragmented life of a woman who has inhabited hers ever since. Having died alone in her flat in December 2003, 38-year-old Joyce Vincent was not discovered until three years later – time suspended around her, Christmas presents at her feet, a TV playing to itself in the corner. Joyce was a young and – by all accounts – beautiful woman. She was not elderly, infirm and without family, nor was she an exiled addict. According to the testimony of an ex-colleague, she represented ‘Someone I wanted to be more like’.
How could a person with such apparent promise fall through the cracks? This is a question Morley’s docudrama constantly poses, interspersing accounts from the alarmingly few people who came forward as having known Joyce – colleagues, neighbours, ex-lovers – with dramatised reconstructions, Fresh Meat’s Zawe Ashton taking on the lead, near-silent role. It’s a silence that feels appropriate, given the scant detail surrounding Joyce: contradictions between accounts reveal the limited extent to which anyone really knew her, while a constant preoccupation with her beauty forces us to question whether appearances are as deep as anyone’s understanding ran. What is unclear is whether this emotional distance was intentional – and there is the oddly uncorroborated suggestion of a secret past of abuse – or, almost more disturbingly, whether simply no one thought to ask.
Anyone deserves more than a grim headline as a eulogy, and Morley endeavours to flesh out the woman behind the macabre ‘skeletal remains’ reported in the press. There is the sense that imagined reconstructions of a living, singing, dancing Joyce are intended to humanise – and yet scenes of Ashton looking weak and defeated, feebly slumped over the kitchen sink as an ex-flatmate ruminates on whether she was a victim of domestic violence, can’t help but feel salacious. With the lack of evidence available, any suppositions about a life no one was truly a part of – a life no one cared enough to be a part of – struck me as crass.
Contributors’ testimonials are not without humour, and it is these moments – an ex- boyfriend jealous of Joyce meeting Nelson Mandela; a once- flatmate rolling her eyes at the constant comparisons to Sade – that imbue the film with flickers of life. Like the neighbouring population too transient or preoccupied to report a suspicious smell, though, the sense of disconnect amongst even those who professed to love her is overwhelming – something everyone interviewed acknowledges with embarrassment.
Perhaps this is why Joyce’s sisters declined to be involved. Their absence is strongly felt, contributing to the countless unanswered questions that make the film feel incomplete. This, of course, reflects the disjointed story Joyce left behind – her dislocation in life follows her into death. But because we know that this was not a conscious choice, it can seem as though Morley forces a cohesive narrative by drawing connections which aren’t there.
Dreams of a Life provides few answers and offers little comfort. No one interviewed knows why they fell out of touch with Joyce; all assumed she was off having a better time than them. As such, it left me disturbed by the ease with which people can just disappear. I’m haunted by the image of week upon week of insipid Saturday night telly playing out to a still, cut-off room, flurries of oblivious Wood Green shoppers getting on with their lives below. Morley’s choice of title is poignant: with only hazy, conflicting memories to go on, the life constructed is one of coarse speculation, the sum of a handful of near-strangers’ fabrications. It’s as though Joyce Vincent never really existed at all.