In January 2006, the repo men arrived at Joyce Carol Vincent’s bedsit in Wood Green, north London. She was heavily in arrears in her rent and they had come to collect. When there was no answer, they broke the door down, and inside, they found a skeleton lying on the sofa. Joyce had been dead for almost three years. The television was still on and there was a small pile of Christmas presents she had been wrapping scattered about the room. Nobody had reported her missing, none of her neighbours seemed to have worried about her, nobody had even noticed anything was wrong.
The story was quickly picked up by the media, though somehow, in this age of information, very few details about Joyce and her life were forthcoming. Film-maker Carol Morley became intrigued by the story. How could it be possible that a still-young woman (she was just 38 at the time of her death) could slip between the cracks so completely? She set about trying to find out more about Joyce’s story and started searching for people who had known her. She put adverts in newspapers, and even on the sides of taxis in an attempt to find out more about who this woman was, and how it could be that she had died in this way.
The result is Dreams of a Life, a painstaking labour of love film. It combines dramatisations of Joyce’s life with interviews with her friends “ the people Morley’s investigations managed to turn up. Intercut are shots of the timeline of Joyce’s life that Morley managed to put together based on conversations with those who knew her. Additionally, there are poignant scenes showing a dramatization of forensic team going through the flat and bagging up the things they find.
What quickly becomes clear is the amount of work Morley has put into researching Joyce’s life and also how little people seemed to have known her. When the story first broke, most of them had no idea that the Joyce Vincent who had been found dead was the Joyce they knew “ as they couldn’t imagine the life of the woman they knew ending in this way. She had always been someone who was sociable and popular, seemed confident and full of life. The interview subjects are regularly surprised by information that Morley has uncovered “ facts that don’t tally with the image they had of their friend. It’s devastating when Morley informs some of them that when admitted to hospital in the months before her death, Joyce listed her bank manager as her next of kin.
A gradual picture of a life builds up, but it’s one with as many questions left outstanding as it answers. The interviews are the heart of the film, with friends trying to piece things together, giving their theories about what must have happened, or the private pain that must have part of Joyce’s life. These are complemented by the dramatization scenes in which Zawe Ashton, best known from sitcom Fresh Meat, is superb as Joyce. Particularly poignant are the scenes in which she is imagined watching the interviews with her friends herself as she sits in her bedsit during her final hours.
Dreams of a Life is a desperately sad film, that works incredibly well as both a comment on the fractured society we live in and the distances that build between people due to the ways we live, and also as a heartbreaking attempt to piece together of the fragments of a single life. It will make you question how much you can ever really know the people in your life, and then it will make you want to phone them up and make sure they are ok.