Monday, 16 January 2012

'Dreams of a Life' review:

In 2003 a 38 year old woman named Joyce Vincent died watching television in her small London flat, situated above a shopping centre in Wood Green. She wasn't discovered for nearly three years - and then only by people seeking her eviction from the premises for failing to make rent payments. When they found her the TV was still on, playing to Vincent's skeletal remains, which were surrounded by unopened Christmas presents. Immediately questions were raised.

Why hadn't anybody noticed her missing? Didn't her family wonder where she was? Why didn't any of her neighbours report the smell? Or question the why the television had been on constantly for so long? Why hadn't the electricity been disconnected? If she were so isolated, who had she planned to spend Christmas with? What did her story say about British society? Questions abound, prompting documentary filmmaker Carol Morley to run a newspaper ad asking for anybody who knew Vincent - in any capacity - to get in contact.

The result is 'Dreams of a Life': a haunting and moving look at Vincent's life as seen through the eyes of ex-boyfriends, colleagues and acquaintances told almost as a stream of consciousness. Early on Morley establishes that we might never know the facts surrounding her death in any detail: Vincent's body was so badly decomposed by the time of its discovery that a cause was not ascertainable (though a possible asthma attack is one theory), whilst insight into her past is limited by the fact that surviving relatives preferred to remain anonymous. With this in mind the film is a patchwork of often contradictory accounts which reveal far more about the nature of friendships - and how little we know about the people around us - than they do about Joyce Vincent, who remains something of a tragic enigma.

Depending on who is speaking she was either too trusting or had problems trusting others. People similarly can't agree on whether or not she was a decent singer, where she worked or who was in her circle of friends at any given time. Several speculate that she lived several parallel lives, having multiple 21st birthday parties with different sets of mates all oblivious to each other's existence. One man considers her the great love of his life, whilst another bestows that honour upon himself. She was a bubbly, happy, confident person - or perhaps a deeply damaged, reclusive individual. Did she quit a high paying office job in order to go travelling abroad with 20 mates or did she simply start working as a cleaner? Maybe all of these things are true. Possibly few of them are.

What is clear is that Joyce was an attractive and capable woman with aspirations of being a professional singer. At one time in her life she apparently rubbed shoulders with Nelson Mandela, conversed freely with Isaac Hayes and dined with Gil Scott-Heron. She was well liked, had a wide circle of friends and, by all accounts, the manner of her death came a huge surprise to those she knew who couldn't believe the lady from the newspaper reports was their Joyce.

This raises an eerie question which, once contemplated, is difficult to erase from your mind: could this happen to you? It also causes you to ponder how much your friends really know about you and, even, the transitory nature of friendship itself. In many ways her story, whilst extraordinary, is understandable. After all, she was young and fit - if one of your friends of a similar age stopped responding to text messages or hadn't been down to the local pub in a while, would you ever wonder whether they had died? I suspect you'd assume they'd moved away, gotten a new job or - for one reason or another - changed their phone number. You'd probably imagine they just didn't like you any more long before you ever considered anything as drastic as Vincent's chilling story.

Morely's film works well as a loose, dreamlike musing on isolation and the fallibility of memory. I think it deliberately seeks to raise more questions than it answers and it succeeds if accepted on these terms. I expect it's rather less satisfying if you're seeking a straight examination of "the facts". In which case the speculative dramatised reconstructions of Vincent's life up to her death, in which she's played by actress Zawe Ashton, are certain to grate.

These sequences are hit and miss in any case, with the worst far too obvious and maudlin - such as when Vincent is imagined singing "My Smile is Just a Frown" into a hairbrush for several minutes before breaking down in tears in her depressing flat. But they can't spoil this thought-provoking glimpse at the cold anonymity of 21st century city life taken to a horrifying extreme.

'Dreams of a Life' has recieved a limited release in the UK, rated '12A' by the BBFC.

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