In 2003, the remains of Joyce Carol Vincent, aged 38, were found in her North London bedsit – three years after she died. Her skeleton was stretched out on the sofa, the television was still on, the Christmas presents unopened. Part documentary, part drama, part detective story, Carol Morley's inventive film attempts to solve the mystery behind Joyce's lonely death.

 

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Elusive life caught in captivating documentary.

The idea that everyone has someone, whether it’s a person they’re intimately close to or the hundreds of digital friends constantly supplying updates, is exposed not so much as a lie but an inadequacy in Dreams of a Life, a fascinating documentary that tries to publicly reconstruct a life that ended in private tragedy. Directed with doggedness and a measure of unforced melancholy that slowly envelopes the story, Carol Morley’s documentary proves that the interconnectedness of the modern age is hardly a safety net.

"Proves that the interconnectedness of the modern age is hardly a safety net"

When her remains were discovered in 2006 in her North London bedsit, Joyce Vincent had been dead for three years. She’d been sitting on the couch, with the television on while wrapping Christmas presents, but no-one noticed the 38-year-old’s absence from society or their lives. Bills piled up, including unpaid rent on the council property, and the television stayed on as a kind of terminal soundtrack. The press picked up on the case, but an inquest returned an open verdict; what little remained of Vincent couldn’t provide a cause of death.

Morley was one of those who read about Joyce Vincent, and her unease – and perhaps fear of experiencing a similar fate – is a subtle factor in the film’s search for answers. Early on Morley, who placed newspaper advertisements searching for people who knew Joyce Vincent and slowly received replies, puts aside the question of how her subject died, or if anyone was responsible, and pays only minor attention to the bureaucratic snafu’s that prevented the discovery of the body for so long. Instead the director, whose 2000 documentary The Alcohol Years was an investigation of her own uncertain past in 1980s Manchester, tries to make sense of Joyce’s life.

Friends, flatmates and former partners remember Vincent and pass on what they know of her life, and while she’s not a cipher, the striking daughter of Caribbean immigrants was someone who adapted to her circumstances. She took on the lives of those around her, and even simple facts come with diverse testimonies. An ex-boyfriend, who clearly loved her, describes Vincent as being 'nicely happy", and if that doesn’t parse then neither does her life. Morley also draws in cultural and political strands, such as the immigrant’s experience and the social upheaval of Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s Britain – Vincent worked in London’s financial district, but it was hardly transformative.

 

Joyce Vincent’s family, including her four sisters, are not present in the documentary (at their request), although her former friends discuss Vincent’s relationships with them, and Morley uses fleeting recreations, with Zawe Ashton (Weekender) as a presence who suggests the few images available of Joyce but doesn’t put words into her mouth. Fittingly, it’s just another vision of the documentary’s subject, and what slowly becomes clear is that Vincent was disappointed that in her own life she couldn’t achieve the vision she saw of herself. All these strands, the person who was and the person who might have been, coexist in this elusive narrative, making Dreams of a Life a detective story that plays out as a rite for the departed.

Watch Dreams of a Life now at SBS On Demand

Read interview with director Carol Morley

See what else is screening on SBS this week

 

Details

PG
1 hour 31 min

Genres