The life of another
IN EARLY 2006, documentarian Carol Morley was on the London Underground when she spotted a headline in a discarded copy of the Sun: “Woman dead in flat for three years: skeleton of Joyce found on sofa with telly still on.”
Joyce Carol Vincent had died on her couch three years before housing association officials discovered her decomposing body. There were small poignant details: the TV was still tuned into the BBC in the corner and the dead woman had been wrapping Christmas presents.
How had Joyce’s three-year absence gone unnoticed by the intended recipients? By the time of the inquest, the press had reported that the woman was 38-years-old, that she was born in West London to Caribbean parents, and that she had spent time in refuge for victims of domestic violence shortly before she moved into the grotty bedsit that would become her tomb. She had family, some of whom attended the inquest. She had friends. She had no problems with alcohol or drugs.
The scant biography only piqued Morley’s curiosity. She placed advertisements. She chased leads. She had to know how someone could simply disappear.
Her investigation has coalesced into Dreams of a Life, a moving movie portrait of modern isolation. Here friends and colleagues recall a girl who was beautiful and chatty, who had a habit of moving and changing jobs, who was well- loved but secretive.
Martin, Joyce’s former boyfriend, describes her as the love of his life: “People used to say she looked like Whitney Huston,” he smiles. “But she was better looking than that.” Kim and Dan, two of Joyce’s co-workers at the treasury department of multinational Ernst & Young, get fits of the giggles recalling Joyce’s office party antics. Old flame Kirk remembers her brief recording career and how she charmed Captain Sensible and Isaac Hayes.
The steady drip-feed of information makes for a fascinating portrait of a fascinating woman. But the more we know the further we get from understanding the sad, lonely manner of Joyce’s death.
Between interviews, Morley’s hybrid documentary makes convincing use of reenactment. Delicate performances from Fresh Meat’s Zawe Ashton and Alix Luka-cain, both playing Joyce at different stages, bring a dramatic urgency to a celebratory tribute.
There’s something of an Irish wake about Dreams of a Life; it ought to be a downer but instead we get a fanfare and a gift that was never delivered.