Dreams of a Life: A forgotten life remembered

Dreams of a Life – a forgotten life remembered

review by Tom Fraine

In 2006, bailiffs investigating overdue rent in a London council flat broke down the door and discovered the body of a woman. It was in such an advanced state of decomposition that the cause and time of death could not be confirmed. Surrounded by partly-wrapped Christmas presents, with the television still tuned to the channel she’d been watching when she died, it was estimated that she had lain undiscovered for three years.

Documentary film-maker Carol Morley decided to further investigate how somebody in one of the world’s biggest metropolises could disappear so completely. The lady, Joyce Vincent, had not been reported missing by friends or relatives. More surprisingly, she did not appear to be some forgotten pensioner: Joyce was 38 when she died.
Dreams of a Life merges together intimate interviews with people who knew Joyce with recreated scenes from her life in London in the Eighties, where she is sensitively portrayed by Zawe Ashton.

The story of her life is at heart a tragic one. The spectre of domestic abuse and depression looms over Joyce’s lonely last years. The soul-searching reminisces of her friends and lovers, many of whom read the article about her death without connecting it with her, are sometimes difficult to watch. And the reconstructed scenes of her life are often heartbreakingly tender and poignant. It is sometimes impossible to believe that such a vibrant character could die so utterly alone in this age of communication, but Morley makes sure it is impossible to forget that she did.

However, the beauty of the film lies in Morley’s redemptive treatment of her subject. This is also the celebration of a life which would have been lost, of a person who lay for three years forgotten by everybody except her creditors. The Joyce we see is a hypnotic subject: a beautiful young woman with a passion for music, she had met Giles Scott Heron and Isaac Hayes. She had led a successful career, working at large global corporations.
She had shaken the hand of Nelson Mandela. And she is brought lovingly and vividly back to life by Ashton.

Like a dream, this film is capricious and powerful. Lacking resolution, it stays long in the mind. The Q&A hosted by the Berlin Film Society afterwards with Morley and Ashton emphasised this fundamental mystery. Was Joyce wrapping Christmas presents on the day she died as a sign that she was ready to return to society? Or did she, as Ashton believes, simply lose the will to continue living?

We will never know, but this excellent documentary film ensures that Joyce’s story will not be forgotten, and is a fine testament to her life.

Review by Tom Fraine

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