Review (and film): Dreams of a Life (2011)

Graham Phillips

There are few things I love more than a good documentary film. Recently, Dreams of a Life was recommended to me, I researched it online, and the fascinating story on which it is based. That story being the life, or rather death, of Joyce Vincent, the 38-year-old lady who lay dead in her own Wood Green (North London) flat for over 2 years before being discovered.

For such a thing to happen, in our times – this was 2006, when the grim discovery was made, is extraordinary. And the work that film-maker Carol Morley has put into it is equally extraordinary. Morley worked on this for five years, turning something which may have been left as a ‘bizarre’ style article in the press, into a major story, with serious ramifications.

All of which makes the final result all the more disappointing. That all the interviewees are in the same place, with the same backdrop makes it feel a bit static. Morley leaving in a part where one calls her a ‘clever girl‘ feels rather onanistic. The music is frequently overbearing. Yet there are more intrinsic problems – the interviewees are not given captions to explain who they are, or the nature of their relationship with Vincent. Meanwhile what they say about Joyce frequently contradicts each other leaving it ultimately entirely unclear, beyond the basics, as to who Joyce Vincent really was.

However, as the film progresses, you are ready to forgive a lot of this – it has a good structure, the reconstructions are impressive, Zawe Ashton excels with what she’s given, in the title role, even if some of the dramatisation really is a bit much at times.  The idea to use a storyboard, adding post-its, and photos, works very well. The photos of Vincent are similarly effectively spliced into the 90-minute film.

Yet what makes it all ultimately unforgivable is that it ends on such a whimper. Ok, ex-boyfriend Martin Lister (pictured), a sympathetic presence throughout, breaks down in tears, which is emotional. And yet, the message of it all ends up being kind of a vague ‘we should pay more attention to our acquaintances‘.

Also, while the interviews add (albeit contrasting) information about who Vincent (pictured) really was, there’s a lack of a backbone. Where’s the interview with someone from the housing association, explaining how a housing association tenant could have so spectacularly fallen through the cracks? Interviews with people who those who actually worked at the scene? The police (there’s some talk of foul play). And, ok, Morley clearly didn’t want to offend Vincent’s four sisters, after they refused to participate, but why are they untouchable? Why aren’t more questions asked of how four sisters could have let their own sister go unchecked for over 2 years?

This shouldn’t have been a studio-set, punch pulling, at times ‘A Smile is Just a Frown‘, Holly-Wood Green production. It should have been raw, visceral, a no holds study of an individual to whom this happened, and the society which let it happen.

But it’s none of this. Of course, credit to Carol Morley for finding this story, seeing the potential in it, doing something it it. But ultimately, it’s a shame she didn’t hand it over to someone who was able to do something more with it.

Watch the film online here. 

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