It’s almost like the universe knew about the large group of strangers coming together to watch this particular film screening. Being early June in Sydney it was grey and freezing cold and later on it would rain. And strangely enough in some morbid way it was a fitting backdrop to watch Dreams Of A Life, a condemnation and celebration of the life of Joyce Carol Vincent.
Vincent was a 38-year old woman living in London. Born in England in 1965, she lived a rather interesting life. But it was her death that would prove the most intriguing. She died alone in a London bedsit in 2003. It would be three years before her body was found. It was a skeleton so badly decomposed that the cause of death was inconclusive and only dental records and a holiday snap could properly identify her. The police ruled out foul play and said there was nothing suspicious.
It was an extremely grim ending. She was only found after the rental arrears had clocked up to the tune of two and a half thousand pounds and the courts came knocking. But perhaps the saddest thing was the circumstances surrounding the death. She died with the television on (where it remained so) and amongst the Christmas presents she had wrapped that evening. Sadder stills is the woman’s back-story.
Director and writer, Carol Morley (sister of famed NME-writer, Paul Morley) put out a series of advertisements in order to piece together the life of this poor woman. She was spurned on after reading the article in the London Underground and finding little coverage was offered in the media beyond this initial story. No photographs were published alongside these few articles.
Morley is responsible for producing this documentary/drama film. There are interviews with Vincent’s former partners, colleagues and acquaintances and these are threaded together with reconstructions and re-enactments from her life. The already heart-wrenching tale is made all the more difficult and upsetting to watch as the young Joyce (Alix Luka-Cain) dreams of becoming a pop star while the adult Joyce (Zawe Ashton) supposedly views the interviewees dealing with their grief, anger and regret rather eerily on a television screen.
Dreams Of A Life paints a portrait of a woman who was sociable and vivacious. In her twenties she was the kind of person men wanted to sleep with and woman envied. She was nomadic, chopping and changing homes and jobs in a mere flash. She was also a chameleon, often adopting the tastes and proclivities of whomever she was closest to at that particular time.
Over the years Vincent would meet the likes of Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Cliff, Gil Scott-Heron and Isaac Hayes. But it was a contradictory and meaningless existence, one cloaked in conflicting stories, secrets, mysteries and a real smoke and mirrors game. She presented herself as a beautiful and intelligent person who was very much “together”. But towards the end she would be reduced to working in a cleaning job and be the victim of domestic violence, all the while attempting to retain an air of being practically perfect.
Like most people, Joyce Vincent represented different things to different people. But this didn’t stop her from one lonely and neglected ending. When she was last hospitalised she named her next-of-kin as her bank manager. And while some of this could be attributed to her own rejection of friends and family, it is sad to know that many of the interviewees – those closest to her – were still unaware that she’d died, even after the story had broke. She had just floated in and out of their lives like a butterfly.
This documentary is a stranger-than-fiction tale that also throws up a number of unresolved questions. It also suffers from a lack of participation from Vincent’s family and for not adequately identifying the interviewees at the outset. But despite these flaws it is still strong viewing, at times a tad funny and a celebratory epitaph for a would-be forgotten life while at other moments rather eerie and gut wrenching as you question what might have been.
Dreams Of A Life is powerful and painful viewing. A searing look at modern life where people are a mere click or tap away but others – like Joyce – are completely disconnected and alone. Ultimately, this is a film that gets under your skin and will leave you thinking about it long after you’ve left the theatre.
Review Score: 8.0 out of 10
Dreams Of A Life is screening at Sydney Film Festival on June 13 along with the short She.Say.
Runtime: 91 minutes