Film review: Dreams Of A Life (12A)

Zawe Ashton as Joyce Vincent in Dreams of a Life
Zawe Ashton as Joyce Vincent in Dreams of a Life
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JOYCE Carol Vincent was alone in her bedsit surrounded by Christmas presents she had been wrapping, with the TV on, when she died, but her body wasn’t found for another three years.

She was 38.

Dreams Of A Life pieces together the life of a young woman, and tries to investigate her mysteriously unreported death. A couple of people knocked on the door because of the noise from the TV but no-one reported her missing and, despite a huge unpaid bill, the electricity was still connected when the bailiffs broke down the door to repossess the property. By then, Vincent had desiccated to a skeleton, and a positive identification was only possible by comparing her teeth to a picture of Vincent, smiling.

It’s the kind of lonely passing that haunts us all, but the poignancy of the news story spurred action from filmmaker Carol Morley, who previously detailed her struggle with addiction with The Alcohol Years. Vincent died in 2006, before we started tracking virtual friends with Facebook or Twitter, but through adverts in the press and social networks Morley traced and interviewed some of Joyce’s friends, colleagues and ex-boyfriends. What emerges in this thoughtful documentary is a young woman who was smart, funny, sociable and ambitious. She had a good singing voice and the looks of a young Whitney Houston.

But Vincent was also secretive and under her outgoing veneer was hard to track. When she lost her secretarial job in the City, she kept up the pretence of going to work. She had no drink or drug issues but latterly it appears she was in an abusive relationship that took her to a series of battered women refuges. Friendships were allowed to peter out, and when she was rushed to hospital with a peptic ulcer, she named her bank manager as her next of kin.

The most obvious gap in Vincent’s story, however, lies in her family background; her mother died when she was young and her father was largely absent so she was raised by her four sisters, who refused to be interviewed and were all, presumably, estranged from Vincent when she died.

Partly to fill in gaps, both visual and biographical, the documentary reconstructs moments from Vincent’s life portrayed by Zawe Ashton, one of the sitcom actors in Channel 4’s Fresh Meat. They don’t all work, and can be sentimental and overscored; in one reconstruction Vincent seems to be the only person at a party. Maybe it was a dull bash, maybe it’s an arty statement about loneliness, or maybe it reflects the film’s tight budget.

The two best contributors are Vincent’s ex-boyfriends Martin and Kirk. Martin, in particular, is still haunted by his former lover and guilt-ridden by his inattentiveness. He dreams about her, even holds imaginary conversations with her, he admits. Men formed intense attachments to Vincent which were sometimes constricting, while women found her looks a bit of a threat. Morley’s documentary is as much about our own fears and conditions of connection, as it is about a woman who slipped from sight. v


Director: Carol Morley

Running time: 90 minutes


Cameo, Edinburgh, from Friday