The beautiful and tragic documentary Dreams of a Life tells the story of the death, and preceding life, of Joyce Carol Vincent, a 38-year-old woman who made headlines across Great Britain in 2003 when her decomposing and skeletonized body was discovered in her bedsit above north London’s Shopping City retail area. Vincent had been dead for three years, a pile of mail in her entranceway, wrapped Christmas presents on the floor, and the television still on. Dreams of a Life seeks to examine how someone in our 21st century, hyper-connected world could simply fade from existence.
Directed by Carol Morley, the documentary brings a diverse range of lost friends, acquaintances, former work associates, and old boyfriends together to share stories from Vincent’s life and collectively attempt to puzzle out the mystery of Vincent’s death. In doing so, the gruesome oddity of the lonely cadaver that Joyce became instead shifts to tales of her as a young girl, aspiring to become a singer, and later the life of the party who it is implied carried the pain of a lost soul of sorts to her grave.
Throughout the course of the mesmerizing doc, a picture of Joyce Carol Vincent is painstakingly realized by Morley’s single-minded focus. Young Joyce is found to have been extroverted and happy, a devoted fan of music and extremely close to her mother. Unfortunately, it is revealed that Joyce’s mother died when she was 11. Her father was distant and unloving to the point that, as an adult, Joyce told acquaintances a few years before her death that he had passed away. Morley shows a few of these acquaintances on camera reading his death notice in the paper… dated 2004, a year after Vincent’s death. Their shock and puzzlement is striking, one of them finally opining that Joyce must have had a good reason to lie, the implication being that Vincent had chosen to decide that she no longer had a father. Of course, doubly striking is the viewer’s knowledge that Joyce had lain alone in her flat for three years and that her father had never checked on her, nor had her three older sisters.
And this is the crux of Morley’s documentary. Though being known as the life of the party as she grew up into her teens and twenties, Vincent never had close friends. Acquaintances categorize her as a “nomad” and a “drifter”, who ultimately became uncomfortable by close attention. Although she had a number of lovers, Vincent would not be tied down. A couple old flames relate stories of waking up one morning and Vincent was simply gone, without a goodbye, moving on to her next port of call. This behavior is intertwined with ephemeral tales of possible domestic violence that Joyce suffered, a mysterious “Polish boyfriend” bandied about as having abused Vincent on multiple occasions, but who was never found. The possibility of child abuse at the hands of her father or early boyfriends is also touched upon. Whatever the case, Vincent never stayed in one place for long and ultimately slipped through the grasp of everyone who was drawn to her.
Morley’s participants are a compelling bunch. Work associates remember a vibrant young woman who was quick to laugh but seemed sad. Friends who had lost touch with her years before her death still seem stunned at the news, reading newspaper articles and shaking their heads, unable to compute the empty space between their last meeting and Vincent’s end. Most captivating by far, however, are Vincent’s two ex-lovers, Martin and Alistair.
Quick to laugh and soft-spoken, Martin recalls with great fondness his relationship with Joyce in the late 1980s and early 1990s and its many starts and stops. In detail, he speaks of his last days with Joyce in 2001, long after they had split, when she appeared at his door asking for a place to stay for about a week and ended up sleeping on the couch at his one-bedroom apartment for six months. Finally, the unobtrusive-to-a-fault Martin asked if she needed some help finding work so she could move out. The next day, Joyce was gone, and Martin never saw her again. Watching Martin speak about Joyce is brutally heartbreaking and he finally breaks down in sobs towards the documentary’s conclusion after categorizing Vincent as the love of his life.
More stoic, but perhaps no less a sad figure, is other ex-lover Alistair. A music producer, Alistair met Joyce when she visited his studio to make a demo tape of her singing. The hoped-for music career never materialized, but Joyce and Alistair became an item before she eventually drifted out of his life as she had with so many other people. Alistair matter-of-factly states that Joyce was his “everything” when they were together and the sadness and loss he holds for his former love is palpable.
Ultimately, Morley expands the documentary’s focus on this hodgepodge assortment of people who knew her to turn the question inward on themselves. Why didn’t any of them check on her? How could this have happened? The answer is a rather sheepish ‘I don’t know.” Most of them admit to harboring regret, but eventually resign themselves to the fact that Vincent’s nomadic and secretive nature made checking on her condition difficult, to say the least. The question is also posed to the viewer, indirectly, to ponder how somebody could, in our age of technology and interconnectivity, just vanish. Indeed, the documentary’s tagline reads “Would Anyone Miss You?” A sobering query.
There are a few slight hiccups in Dreams of a Life. As Morley’s painstaking research still left gaping and impossible-to-fill holes in Joyce Vincent’s narrative, the doc is sometimes compelled to fill in these gaps with scenes of Vincent (played by the winsome Zawe Ashton) doing little else besides singing, dancing, or looking unexplainably morose. This is repeated throughout the documentary and gives the impression of Vincent having done nothing with her life than alternating between partying and suffering crushing depression. I would have liked to see a little more fleshing-out of Joyce Carol Vincent the person, as I feel the documentary does her a slight disservice by painting her a bit too broadly. However, as Vincent’s life is largely unknown, that was a creative decision on Morley’s part, and her prerogative.
All in all, Dreams of a Life is an entrancing and poignant look back on north London’s forgotten woman. Apart from allowing the world a remembrance of Joyce Carol Vincent’s dreams, hopes, and loves, it also serves as a warning of sorts about the loss of community in today’s bustling world. Some people are surrounded by other people, and yet totally alone. Obvious labors of love like Dreams of a Life endeavor to ensure that there will never be another tragedy as the one that befell Joyce Carol Vincent. I earnestly recommend it.
(Dreams of a Life was released on DVD on March 19 in the UK and today in the United States. Besides the feature, the DVD includes a behind-the-scenes featurette titled ‘Recurring Dreams’ and the documentary’s theatrical trailer.)