Missing for over two years and found dead in her apartment, the tragic story of Joyce Vincent is the subject of Carol Morley’s documentary: Dreams of a Life.
Morley immediately faced a huge issue when making her film: there was little to no information about Joyce Vincent’s life. This project seems to be a real investigative passion piece for Morley as her research was extensive to gather contacts and information about Vincent to build her story. In the end, Morley managed to gather more details than the police had during their own investigation.
An understanding of Joyce Vincent’s life is unravelled in interviews with those who knew her: old friends, housemates and work colleagues speak fondly of Vincent, all rather taken aback hearing the details of her lonely and mysterious death. Morley builds the narrative of Dreams of a Life by cutting between these interviews and reconstructed scenes of Vincent (Zawe Ashton) as more knowledge about her is revealed.
Striking an appropriate balance between dramatised scenes and interviews, Morley provides a structure in which her investigation is allowed to naturally progress. The interviewees featured reflect on Vincent as a bubbly, energetic woman, making it so unusual that her life ended in this secluded way. The whole case has a rather sinister undertone to it: Vincent died in her flat by a busy London shopping centre. Her body went unnoticed for nearly three years with no missing person report filled and nobody coming to look for her. There are some rather difficult and dark subjects that Morley does not shy away from when exploring how Vincent was able to just drop off the radar unnoticed.
There are some incredibly touching moments of reflection featured. In particular, Martin, Vincent’s ex-boyfriend, shares a real vulnerability on-screen. Martin expresses his love for Vincent, still in the present tense, a really heartbreaking moment stemming from his emotional reaction.
These interviews unearth more about Vincent, however the memory of her sometimes wavers into feeling romanticised. Morley leads this journey in mapping Vincent’s life with real control, but when interviewees describe a rather idealised memory of Vincent, there is a risk of a two-dimensional portrayal being presented. However, this does open up an interesting thought about the rose-tinted nature of memory. These moments are fleeting though, Morley is quick to regain momentum and not get hung up on a reductive form of nostalgia.
Morley has cited Agnes Varda as an inspiration for her film-making style. Varda’s influence can be seen in Dreams of a Life when Ashton, as Vincent, performs ‘A Smile is Just a Frown’ an incredibly touching moment that bears a resemblance to when Cléo (Corinne Marchand), in Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, sings emotionally charged lyrics in a similarly moving scene. Both Varda and Morley, as directors, give time to let their films settle in these intimate moments.
Centrally, Dreams of a Life brings to the forefront interesting points about the value place on relationships. Whether these are romantic, platonic or family-orientated, the film highlights the crucial importance of them to the human experience. Morley taps into the underlying darkness of this case: Vincent’s body was surrounded by half-wrapped Christmas presents when she was discovered by bailiffs, who had forced entry to her flat. A really saddening thought that absolutely no one in Vincent’s life questioned her two year disappearance. The documentary tackles these complex topics and existential questions, but overall, ensures there is a sincere honesty with humanising Joyce Vincent. Morley brings a vibrant life to Vincent’s name to be remembered in the respectful way those who knew her describe.
The story itself seems unbelievable, almost fictitious in its details, and yet it is completely true. Morley stumbled upon an incredibly unique topic, but smartly maintains a composed style of documentary film-making to honour Vincent. Dreams of a Life is a poignant reflection on the value of relationships and the necessity of connection. Morley presents a reminder that the smallest act of re-connection may turn out to have a much bigger effect.
By Emily Maskell
Originally from the flat lands of Norfolk, Emily now studies Film at De Montfort University. She’s often found cuddling her dog and wearing oversized jumpers with a big mug of tea. When Em’s not in the cinema, she spends too much time re-watching Bo Burnham’s stand-up comedy and subjecting her friends to her Call Me By Your Name ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter: @EmMaskell