Dreams of a Life

Cobwebs and radio on a dusty table courtesy of Dogwoof
Cobwebs and radio on a dusty table courtesy of Dogwoof

Betty Wood reviews Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life, a film that explores the connections we make with others and the consequences when these cease to exist

For most commuters, leafing through the morning’s paper on the way to work is part of a daily routine, with the content of those pages remaining an abstract notion soon forgotten as the stress and demands of the day kick in. But for British film maker Carol Morley, reading the newspaper one morning in 2006 she came across an article that haunted her to such an extent she spent the next four years of her life making a film about its subject.

In 2006, the badly decomposed body of 38 year-old Joyce Carol Vincent was discovered in a bedsit above a busy shopping centre in London’s Wood Green. Three years earlier, sitting in front of her small television set as she wrapped Christmas presents, her window open and a stack of dirty dishes piled in the sink awaiting her attention, Joyce died.

Despite the strange smell escaping through Joyce’s window – in spite of the constant buzz of the television playing loudly through the wall – when her rental arrears totalled the paltry sum of £2,400, council workers forced their way through the front door, across a small mountain of post on the doorstep and into Joyce’s living room where they made their grim discovery.

Joyce’s body, left to rot through the heat of several summers, had melted into her sofa leaving little more than a skeleton behind.The newspaper article ran her name and the grizzly details of her body’s discovery, but the holiday snap that was used to identify her (by her teeth) never made it into print. Instead, Joyce Vincent remained an anonymous name until she fell out of print, and Carol Morley – still haunted by the story of the woman’s death, and more harrowingly her life – placed an advert in the national newspapers and on the side of London cabs.

“Joyce harboured no great ambitions, plans, drive… She had no past – certainly no future” – Alistair Abrahams, Joyce’s ex-boyfriend

The result is a lovingly made and hauntingly poignant film that weaves interviews with Joyce’s ex-lovers, friends and colleagues between romanticised ‘re-enactments’ from Joyce’s life, played sensitively by actresses Zawe Ashton and Alix Luka-Chain. These moments of fantasy are tinged with a voyeuristic element that that add a degree of credulity to Morley’s romanticised  imaginings of Joyce’s life, that add a degree of credulity to Morley’s romanticised  imaginings of Joyce’s life, conjured from the few photographs and personal effects Morley was able to find. Ashton’s performance lingers – it’s hard not to imagine Joyce being charmed by Ashton’s turn as her younger self.

But Morley’s film does not seek to evangelise Joyce Vincent’s life – instead she builds a complex portrait of a woman based on the testaments of people who knew her to varying degrees – from the intimate reminiscing of ex-boyfriends Martin and Alistair to distant recollections of ex-work colleagues.

To Martin, Joyce appeared full of ambition, driven and determinedly seeking “more from life” whereas for Alistair, she harboured “no great ambition, plans, drive… No past – certainly no future”. What emerges from the gaps between these statements is a woman who was simultaneously warm, loving, trusting and kind but also “emotionally retarded”; a woman who would run away rather than confront her problems. These fractured and fragmented recollections are unpolished and unsolicited, emotionally loaded and heartbreakingly candid. But they’re also at once revealing and frustratingly elusive, conveying more about the individuals on screen than about Joyce herself. It’s a mammoth task recreating the life of a stranger, especially one for whom the last few months of life are so unknown.

Whilst Morley includes hypotheses about the cause of Joyce’s death – asthma? foul play? –at its core, Dreams of a Life is a film that examines the situation of Joyce’s death – the loneliness, the bleakness of life in a bedsit and her stints in a women’s refuge for victims of domestic abuse  – and how it could happen to any of us, given the right – or wrong – circumstances.

Dreams of a Life is a remarkably moving film done with tenderness and care – one has no doubt that Morley has done her subject proud. More so, her audience is left with a residual feeling as the credits close, the awareness of our own vulnerability and potential isolation given our current metropolitan lifestyles. Dreams of a Life is just that, the fantasy of what could be and what we must work ourselves to avoid.

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