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I can't remember which poet said it now, but when questioned on why we
create art he responded, "to make our living and dying important again,
and the living and dying of others." By this measure, Dreams of a Life
is an artistic triumph; it does exactly that. If Carol Morley had not
re-invented herself as a private detective who would know about Joyce
Vincent's story now? The tenacity and iron will it must have taken to
get this project off the ground is evident in the care with which this
film has been made. Not only in terms of what it draws out of the
people who knew Joyce, but also in the skilled reconstructions and
outstanding performances from the cast.
The film is fresh and offers something new to the genre with its blurring of documentary and drama. There are moments in the film to make your heart break but as much as anything the film is a celebration and a remembrance of a life lived.
I remember learning about the discovery of Joyce Vincent's body a few
years ago and thinking what a sad and disturbing news story it was,
almost beggaring belief in present day civilised society. This superbly
and sensitively crafted drama documentary from Carol Morley answers a
mere handful of the many questions which inevitably followed while
inevitably producing a myriad of others.
It is a salutary reminder that life is both precious and mysterious, things are often not what they seem and how we all think we know our friends but in reality our comprehension is limited to what we are actually permitted to see and understand.
The most refreshing and at the same time most disturbing impression given is that Joyce's friends appear to be genuine, caring people but despite this, she still slipped through the emotional and physical net which binds humanity together.
The power of this film makes the loss almost as tangible to the audience as it must have felt to Martin. It reminds us that although time is often regarded as a great unhurried and invisible healer, it can also be corrosively destructive.
Plenty to contemplate here...
So wrote Charles Bukowski, not knowing his words would end up selling Levis. That's another story. This story, Dreams of a Life, is a compelling and brilliant documentary. The performances are superb,particularly from Zawe Ashton and Alix Luka-Cain. The film stayed with me a long time after the curtains closed. All of the characters are so interesting that the film does give proof to the credo, 'you couldn't make it up'. Why would you need to with a story as powerful and bizarre and thought-provoking as this? Who are we? What are we? How do we come to be and equally, how to we come to be remembered. What is memory? What is re-memory? As well as these deep questions about the self the film also seeks to ask (without bitterness or blame) - how can this happen? What does it say about society that people can fall through the cracks and disappear? I highly recommend Dreams of a Life, it is a labour of love and this shows in the attention to detail it gives to the people and events that come together to tell this story with such power and such care.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Through interviews and reconstructions,DREAMS OF A LIFE tells the
tragic story of Joyce Carole Vincent,who died alone apparently in her
North London bedsit in December 2003 surrounded by unopened Christmas
presents,but was not discovered until 2006,when bailiffs entered the
property,finding her decomposed remains with the TV still switched on.
When it was initially reported by the UK press,there were little details of her life and no photographs published.Filmmaker Carole Morley read about the story,and began to place adverts in local newspapers asking who knew her, and try and build Joyce's life story and to why it ended so tragically.
It took many years for all the pieces to come together,and eventually,various friends,work colleagues and partners came forward, and with their recollections and memories paint a portrait of a vivacious,beautiful,sociable but troubled and reticent young woman who could be the life of any party, yet always seemed to hold herself back from commitment to marriage,work or habitats.There are moments of humour but this is essentially a very sad story,with as many questions unanswered as answered.None of Joyce's remaining close family are present, this being her four sisters.Her mother died when she was only 11, and her father was a transient presence in her childhood, seemingly more interested in carousing and womanising and explaining her mother's death in a flippant,insensitive manner.
Her adult life parallelled that of her Father's in being nomadic and unsettled, with her first serious boyfriend Martin being no oil painting (as he admitted) but thoroughly decent and personable nonetheless, though with her exotic Indian/Afro-Caribeaan good looks always attracting attention from men,sometimes appreciated,often unwanted,made her a difficult woman to keep, and in the end, there was a parting of the waves.
An attempt at becoming a soul singer failed, though this led her to another partner, who was involved in the music industry and didn't care much for her singing but cared very much for her as a person. This relationship broke down,as did another attempt with Martin, and after boarding with a succession of friends, she ended up in a modest bedsit (with unsubstantiated rumours that she was attacked by another partner), unable to conquer various personal problems and bad memories, her death shrouded in as much mystery and contradictions as her short life brought.
The film itself is as much as a detective story as a biography of a seemingly unremarkable life, and significantly none of Joyce's family take part in the interviews.It could have been the case that the reconstructions, perhaps mostly speculative, could have been an unnecessary distraction and ill-judged, yet thanks to sensitive handling, are very touching if not poetic, and acted with considerable style by Zawe Ashton, almost totally voiceless except for a few moments of singing, portraying Joyce through body and facial expression with total conviction.This is all very well juxtaposed with the interviewees thoughts involved, never lapsing into mawkishness or sentiment. And if even the most stone-hearted of you don't go misty-eyed when Joyce (as played by Ms Ashton) part-sings/mimes a particular soul ballad into a hair brush, you are not human.
DREAMS OF A LIFE should be a lesson to us all, to contact family, loved ones or friends if absent for a while, just to see if all is OK.How come that a woman with so much to live for died in one of the World's biggest metropolises with no-one noticing for nearly three years? Is that sense of community gone now because of greater selfishness in our more dehumanised,materially-obsessed World? Could such a dreadful event occur again? Such questions linger in the mind long after seeing the film, which is totally compelling and absorbing from first to last shot, and although a few scenes look a trifle misguided, perhaps due to the modest budget involved, Carole Morley has produced a wholly memorable and deeply touching film with the right amount of dignity and respect towards it's subject.Joyce Vincent passed away in very distressing and tragic circumstances, but DREAMS OF A LIFE is a fitting tribute to a young woman who was liked and loved by so many but perhaps no one ever fully knew.
RATING:8 and a half out of 10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The film's UK release date coincided with Christmas 2011, which was
deliberate as the subject of the film, Joyce Carol Vincent, died from
causes unknown shortly before Christmas 2003. Her body was not
discovered until January 2007 when bailiffs acting on behalf of a
housing association arrived at her flat with a repossession order as
her rent had not been paid for 3 years. Questions were asked by her
local MP, Lynne Featherstone (who appears in the film), as to how it
was possible that her death had been unnoticed by anyone during the
three-year period. The unusual and poignant nature of Joyce's demise
led the film maker, Carol Morley, to begin investigating who Joyce had
been and how she had been so abandoned in death. The film is the result
of her efforts to piece together Joyce Carol Vincent.
Not long before her death we learn that Joyce was hospitalised for a peptic ulcer; she listed her next-of-kin at the hospital as her bank manager describing him as the person who knew her best. Yet the film features people from her life - ex-boyfriends, flat mates, friends, ex-colleagues - that she could have called upon. Although it is easy to believe that the circumstances of her death and body's subsequent discovery were the fault of a society whose care for its members has unravelled Al, one of Joyce's ex-boyfriends, states in the film that Joyce had some responsibility for her demise by pulling away and isolating herself from those who knew and cared about her. Beneath the sociological comment the film offers is a more profound study in Joyce's character and the tragedy that befell her. Indeed it seems as though a combination of traumas in her life had led Joyce, a great keeper of secrets, to isolate herself completely.
The film is an amazing production as the director, Morley, combines documentary style interviews, which flow naturally from the subjects, combined with a fictional account of Joyce's life informed by the interviews but fictionalised at other points. What is even more remarkable is that Morley painstakingly unearthed all the interviewees, pictures, film footage, sound recordings etc as none were available to the authorities in the aftermath of Joyce's death. The film also features Morley's montage of Joyce's time line from birth to death and what she discovers of events along the way. Interestingly Joyce's family did not want to be involved with the making of the film, wishing to remain anonymous.
Amongst the many things that Joyce Carol Vincent did in her life was to meet Nelson Mandela and the film ends with actual footage of Mandela addressing a small musical gathering at which Joyce was present and we see her on film. She was an unusual person, possessed of talents most of which were never realised. As one interviewee remarks (her ex-boyfriend Al) she never seemed to have a future and did not seem fully invested in life. The title is a play on both Joyce sleepwalking through life as well as the dream imagined for the viewer of Joyce's life.
Joyce sings during the film a song the refrain of which is 'my smile is a frown upside down'. She really reminds me of the man in Stevie Smith's poem 'Not Waving But Drowning', who "was much further out than you thought and not waving but drowning ... I was much too far out all my life ..."
At its core this is a story about a very lonely person, one that we all
may know, and how she fell through the cracks of life. One character
sums it up perfectly: "It's strange really, it's like she never really
existed but was just a figment of our imagination. She was a story.
Someone that we all just made up; partly because we just let someone
disappeared and die. Someone that we all thought we cared about." A few
people have mentioned that this documentary is weak because Joyce, and
her story, are mundane and not remarkable." They're absolutely correct,
but I see this as a strength for the documentary. Joyce, and her
"friends", are not remarkable in any way. Instead, they are normal
people who lived their life around someone that was almost a ghost.
It's remarkable to watch these people recite, and discover, how little they knew this woman that they considered a friend. And yet these friends, or interviewees, are the best window into Joyce's life. As the title of the film suggests it really is like Joyce only existed in a dream. Her past and future never existed and she was only a shell of a person. I was reminded strongly of the movie Inception while thinking about Joyce. Not to ruin Inception for anyone, but there's a conversation where one character says to another "I can't imagine you with all your complexity, all your perfection and imperfection. You're just a shade..." That's what Joyce was, only a shade of a real person.
If there's a lesson to take from this movie it's that we need to do a better job of keeping in contact with our friends. I don't know what happened in Joyce's life that left her to die alone, but no one should have that fate.
Newspaper headlines are flashed on screen detailing the strange case of
a 38 year old woman found dead in her apartment after three years.
Joyce Carol Vincent died a lonesome death, without drawing notice. A
pathologist could not determine the cause of death due to its
decomposition. Dental records were used for identification. The people
who discovered her said that the television was on and Christmas
presents were partially wrapped. A reenactment shows a team in hazmat
suits decontaminating the flat. A picture of a pretty black woman is
shown while interviews with friends and co-workers begin.She is
described as well spoken and easy going. Her mother wast Indian and
father a black Grenadian carpenter and womanizer. Her mother died when
she was eleven and she told those around her that her father had also
passed away. Later on it is discovered that he passed away a year after
Recordings are played from a studio session when Joyce was aspiring to be a professional singer. A boyfriend, Martin, speaks well of her with fond memories. He is white and overweight and was shocked that such a good looking woman would date him. Another boyfriend remembers living with her and the night she tells him how she met Nelson Mandela. They eventually drift apart and she lives a nomadic lifestyle, rooming with different men and possibly being physically abused by one. A beautiful actress(Zawe Ashton) portrays Joyce in the film and she is very good.
Ironically, the most compelling figure of the story turns out to be Martin, who with introspection, regrets the choices he made because he never stops thinking about Joyce, who he loved very much.
Dreams of A Life is a powerful and moving statement on how little we really know about each other and the inner demons within all of us.
About a decade ago I worked in the offices of a local council's
Environmental Health department and, among the jobs that fell into this
department was that of dealing with the issue of people who had been
found dead and didn't have anyone to make the arrangements. It didn't
happen too often but occasionally the office would be used as a
temporary store for loads of books, VHS tapes or other hoarded
possessions of people who had died alone and seemed to have nobody. I
never attended the funerals of these people but colleagues who did the
arrangements generally reported a few friends or family but that was
all. Despite never knowing these people, I had made the decision that
these were sad lonely people who lived alone forever, knew nobody and
had always been that way.
In a way, when we enter this film and hear about Joyce, this is the same impression it is very easy to have; she died alone and lay undiscovered for three years Three years with nobody anywhere really making an effort to find out why they hadn't seen her for a while. The lack of information in the paper about this person is what led Morley to make this documentary and she does unearth a lot and a great deal of it shows that Joyce was not some introverted hermit but in some ways just the opposite. It was clear from the detail that she did carry a great sadness within her, but at the same time she was active socially, had famous connections in the music industry and was a very attractive woman. The film builds this picture well even surprising her friends with some details, but it never really gets to a point or to answers and this is the main problem with the film.
On the whole it does engage by virtue of how saddening it is and in the way it forces the viewer to ask questions of (and about) ones self, but this isn't quite enough to make the film fill 90 minutes. The details of Joyce's life only increased the questions but the film doesn't lay blame anywhere and doesn't investigate how anyone can go unnoticed for three years. This side of things isn't as good and it is a real shame as it could have had more of an impact. The subject itself is fascinating though and the mix of interviews and dramatized moments does work pretty well with some interesting characters in her life and some great moments acted out by Ashton. The direction and look of the film is mostly good it is very lively and good looking, not unlike the Joyce we see portrayed as well.
Dreams of a Life is a depressing and engaging film thanks to the subject matter and the way it is delivered, but it doesn't go far enough. It doesn't have an overall point in particular and it leaves as many questions as it answers; the viewer is left with a sense of sadness which is worthy but not a real understanding of anything beyond this one person. I liked it for what it did well, but the gaps are disappointing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In January of 2006, the severely decomposed body of a woman was found
in a bedsit flat above a shopping mall in the Wood Green district of
North London. By pathology, it was determined that she had remained
undiscovered for approximately three years. Her body was surrounded by
Christmas presents, and apparently, she died in the process of wrapping
them. The television set, which sat in one corner of the room, had been
left on the entire time. The virtually skeletal condition of the
remains meant that she could only be identified by comparing dental
records with a photograph of her smiling. Her name was Joyce Carol
Vincent, and at the time of her death, she was thirty-eight years old.
Although the grim discovery would be mentioned in local newspapers,
details regarding Vincent's personal life, including a picture of her,
were noticeably missing.
Due to the state she was found in, a specific cause of death could not be determined, and the coroner recorded an open verdict. It remains unknown to this day, although it's strongly believed that she died of natural causes. Filmmaker Carol Morley read Vincent's story in the daily tabloid "The Sun" and was haunted by the questions it raised. Now I am, too. How is it possible that the local council, the housing association, and the utility companies didn't notice mounting unpaid bills? How could her neighbors attribute the stench of decaying flesh to dumpsters? Why were the police unwilling to delve any further into the case? The official explanation, according to what Member of Parliament Lynne Featherstone was told, was that there was nothing to answer to in terms of foul play. How they figured out Vincent wasn't murdered in the first place has not been made entirely clear.
Morley has channeled her fascination with this story into "Dreams of a Life," a morbidly curious, deeply tragic, strangely compelling documentary constructed entirely from hearsay. It shows that Vincent's life was just as much of a mystery as her death; the scraps we're fed about her are provided by interviewees that at best knew her superficially. Listen to them talk, and you'll repeatedly hear them qualify their statements with phrases like, "I think," "I believe," "Maybe," "I seem to remember," and, "It could be," among many others. It would appear she never let anyone get too close to her, which is ironic given the fact that, by all accounts, she was a beautiful woman and had a fairly active social life. She would ultimately lose touch with everyone, and by the time her body was discovered, many of her former friends and acquaintances didn't initially realize the tabloids were referring to the woman they knew.
The interviewees were found only after Morley placed an ad with various publications and internet sites. We see the ad printed on the side of a black cab: "Did you know Joyce Carol Vincent?" Even then, it took months to get a response. Of the people Morley features, three stand out as the most interesting. One is Martin Lister, who met Vincent in 1985 when he worked negotiating client renewals for a shipping company; Vincent was twenty at the time and was his boss' secretary. They would date for three years and then sporadically keep in touch until 2002. The last time she was in his life, he claims, she was staying in his flat and was seemingly in some kind of trouble. He says that she knew every inch of the city, having moved at least once a year. He learned very little about her, although he recalls her telling him about her Indian mother, who died when she was eleven, and her African father, a carpenter. This contradicts what was published, namely that her parents were from the Caribbean.
Another featured subject is Catherine Clark, who befriended Vincent when they were renting a room in the home of musician Kirk Thorne. She wasn't surprised when she learned that Vincent had spent some time in a battered women's shelter, for she knew that Vincent had attracted many men into her life. Perhaps her isolation towards the end of her life had something to do a controlling boyfriend. This could account for why her older sisters, who allegedly raised her following their mother's death, were only briefly seen during Vincent's inquest and didn't want to participate in this film. And then there's Alistair Abrahams, a former music manager and Vincent's ex-boyfriend. He too describes a beautiful, fun woman who never shared her past. He recalls when they attended a Nelson Mandela tribute concert in 1990 and how she shook Mandela's hand.
Just about everyone in the film expresses disbelief and guilt over not knowing something had happened to her. They don't understand how the woman they knew a happy, bubbly spirit with a beautiful singing voice and aspirations of being a pop star could have possibly ended up in a bedsit and died alone. Morley attempts to fill some of the gaps with strategically placed reenactments, which feature Zawe Ashton and Alix Luka-Cain as the adult and child versions of Vincent respectively. It was reported that Vincent was medically treated for a peptic ulcer, and so Morley depicts her looking gravely ill and doubling over in pain the night she died. Perhaps it happened that way, and perhaps it didn't. "Dreams of a Life" raises a lot of questions, but the most important is: How is it possible for someone to slip through the cracks in today's fast-paced, technologically innovative, socially centered world?
-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)
Carol Morley has come up with a really interesting idea.
She's written and directed a documentary about the mysterious death of a beautiful West Indian 39 year old girl (Joyce Vincent) who was a major hit with the lads "People said she was as good looking as Whitney Houston; I thought she was more attractive than that." and had hundreds of friends and admirers and a huge family to boot; four sisters.
The film is not so much about how she died but the fact that it took three years for her body to be discovered. In her flat. Watching her TV which was still on.
No Electricity company shut her utilities off; the council never chased the rent; no one complained about the smell; none of her friends visited; none of doting ex's; none of her family. Nobody.
Carol Morley builds a documentary mixing dramatised re-enactments of her life and "Touching the Void" type real life storytelling to get closer to the truth than the police ever did.
It's a fascinating idea and in places nicely shot with some interesting music (although hardly a career high for ex-Magazine bassist Barry Adamson).
Why then is it so unengaging emotionally? Why do we not really care about poor Joyce Vincent? I think because the story is dragged 30 40 minutes past is tell by date. It's just far too long.
It's a shame because I really wanted to like it and applaud almost everything about it; including the fact that it was funded (in part by the Irish Film Board!?) and the incredible detective work that Carol Morley did to unearth so many of the people in Joyce Vincent's life when the police found not one of them.
In the end, it just makes the police look ridiculous.
And poor old Martin, the bachelor who lost the love of his life.
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