Staff Recommendation/ Dreams Of A Life

Cornerhouse Digital Reporter Catherine Harte reviews Dreams Of A Life

The skeletal remains of Joyce Carol Vincent were found on her couch, surrounded by signs of life. The heating was on, the postman brought letters, and the TV flickered over her decomposing frame. It was three years before Joyce’s body was found by bailiffs; she was found beside newly-wrapped Christmas presents, presents for people who never reported her missing and never noticed her three-year absence. Filmmaker Carol Morley read the report in The Sun, in a photo-less article that revealed little of the subject’s identity. Haunted and deeply affected by what she read, Morley set out to find people who knew Joyce, to piece together an imagined portrait of her life. Dreams of a Life is thoughtfully titled, Morley dreamed up the portrayal of Joyce’s life in constructed imaginary scenes. Joyce too must have dreamed of a life, certainly one with a better ending. Her death echoes a common nightmare: to die alone and unnoticed. As such, this film serves as a cinematic wake, attended by random friends sharing stories from her life.

Morley had complete creative freedom over the film; Joyce’s family did not want to be identified and had relinquished all editorial control. The docu-drama is formed of testimonies and reconstructed scenes inspired by both memories and speculations. But who has the right to tell her life story? Especially in such a speculative manner. Actress Zawe Ashton plays Joyce in the reconstructions, some scenes nicely illustrate anecdotes, and others are over-dramaticised and unnecessary. That said, Morley was clearly dedicated to crafting a tender portrait of Joyce and the film took five years to make. It could also be said that the theatrical style would have suited Joyce, who had once dreamed of stardom. With hardly any evidence from Joyce’s London bed-sit, Morley pieced the story together by interviewing some of her former colleagues, ex boyfriends, and previous housemates. They all described a vivacious and beautiful woman who drifted in and out of their lives like brief bouts of sunshine. She was positive, had no lack of friends, earned a decent living and turned heads wherever she went. Joyce did not fit the profile of a woman who would die alone; she was not a recluse who died as she lived. But she was a drifter who frequently changed address and career, wandering from group to group, usurping the lives of her boyfriends. Because of her ways, nobody noticed a few years without news.

Contributions by local MP Lynn Featherstone are impersonal in an otherwise poignant portrait. Her brief testimony served no more than to tell us plainly that there is a general lack of community spirit in the UK and that people live very separate lives. With or without her input, this is a sentiment that resounds long after the credits. Morley did Joyce justice by commemorating her character through film, but she also exposes transient relationships, which will hopefully encourage viewers to give more time to family and friends. Throughout the film, Morley did not let her impressions of Joyce shape her editorial choices, the random array of friends who narrate the story often contradict each other. While this adds mystery to Joyce’s persona, it highlights the fact that biographies can never truly be accurate and that Morley’s imagined scenes have as much a right to be there as the inconsistent testimonies of acquaintances. Had the film been made from Joyce’s own diary entries, we might have come closer to the truth, but after death we can only hope to be immortalized by the stories of others.

Dreams of a Life screens from Fri 16 Dec – Thur 29 Dec 2011. Buy your tickets here.