out of Five
Running time: 90
Impressively assembled and exhaustively researched, this is a grimly fascinating, deeply upsetting documentary-slash-mystery that raises some uncomfortable questions.
What's it all about?
Directed by Carol Morley, Dreams of a Life is a documentary that attempts to reconstruct the life of Joyce Carol Vincent, an attractive, mixed-race 38 year-old woman who became a brief tabloid sensation when her body was discovered in her North London flat (with the television on and surrounded by wrapped Christmas presents), having lain there for almost three years. The body was so badly decomposed (witnesses describe it as literally melting into the floor) that an autopsy was deemed impossible, but police apparently ruled out foul play.
Morley structures the story by interspersing various talking head interviews with Joyce's friends, co-workers, neighbours and ex-lovers (often filmed reading and reacting to the tabloid stories of Joyce's death) with photographs, timelines (presumably Morley's own timeline as she pieced the story together, detective-style) and reconstructions starring Fresh Meat's Zawe Ashton as Joyce and Alix Luka-Cain as her childhood self.
The multi-perspective structure of the film works brilliantly, because we immediately realise that no-one really knew Joyce, so like many of the onscreen talking heads, we're left to speculate for ourselves. Did she die of an asthma attack? An undiagnosed ulcer? Or was something more sinister, since friends report her becoming distant after the failure of an abusive relationship? Either way, the film raises several uncomfortable questions and you're forced to ask yourself if what happened to Joyce could ever happen to you. (Warning: the film is particularly upsetting if you live on your own and are close to Joyce's age).
Aside from the intriguing central mystery, the film also makes some thought-provoking observations about modern-day city life and just how society allowed someone like Joyce to slip through the cracks so thoroughly. (The detail of the Christmas presents is particularly haunting in this regard – if she was expected somewhere for Christmas, how come no-one came looking for her?)
Zawe Ashton is terrific in the reconstruction sequences, particularly during a stand-out sequence where she sings along to the entirety of Carolyn Crawford’s My Smile is Just a Frown (Turned Upside Down), a deliberately telling and extremely effective song choice. Morley also elicits some heartbreaking moments from her interviewees, most notably kindly ex-lover Martin Lister, who confesses that she was the love of his life and breaks down as he realises that this might not have happened if he'd kept in touch.
Dreams of a Life is a haunting, deeply upsetting and powerfully moving documentary that will stay with you long after you leave the cinema. Highly recommended.