Dreams of a Life

Docu-drama based on the true story of Joyce Vincent, a 38-year old woman who died alone in her London flat and whose body lay undiscovered for nearly three years.

Director Carol Morley spent four years tracking down Joyce’s friends, colleagues and ex-partners in an effort to understand how such an unbelievable event was able to occur.

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In June 2006, debt collectors knocked down the door of Ms Vincent’s flat to collect £2,400 or threaten repossession. What they found was piles of post dating back to February 2003 and a body, nearly entirely skeletal, next to a pile of Christmas presents, the television still on. She was non-alcoholic, did not smoke, did not take drugs. An open verdict was reached, the cause of death remains unknown, although police do not believe there were any suspicious circumstances. Her body could only be identified by her teeth.

The film does not focus on Joyce’s death but on her life. It manages to be poignant rather than macabre. Told mainly through interviews with old housemates and friends, work colleagues and boyfriends, it builds a picture of her character “confident and bubbly” while at the same time “mysterious and secretive”. Zawe Ashton portrays Joyce in an almost silent role reconstructing the life of the woman friends described as “a magnet… people would always gravitate towards her”. In fact many of her friends, including her boyfriend of several years, saw the news report of her body’s discovery and still did not connect it to the Joyce they knew. “Exotic, beautiful, immaculate” – all words used by those who knew her. She was bought up by her Indian mother and Grenadian father, who moved to England from the West Indies. Her mother died during an operation when Joyce was just 11, an event ex-boyfriend Martin thinks traumatised her. She was bought up by her three sisters and despite leaving school with no qualifications she had good jobs and was “very bright”. She dreamed of being a singer, met Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes and Nelson Mandela.

So how can a young woman with three sisters, seemingly well-liked by her friends, disappear completely unnoticed?

“She was a drifter” a phrase used by more than one friend, close for a while and then she would drift away and there would be no more contact. Her relationships were intense, she was a “chameleon”, adapting to her partners lifestyles, befriending their friends. Martin recalls her almost nomadic existance, constantly moving flats, often quitting jobs. “Every time she felt something wasn’t going right she would move”, remembering a time she had been ‘pestered’ at work by a man and quit. He wonders whether something happened to her as a child, she was secretive about her past. At one point she took leave from work, telling her colleagues her father had died, but his death certificate shows the date of May 2004 – after her death.

In the mid 90s Joyce began dating a new man, police are aware of an abusive incident in which she was locked in their flat by him for an entire day. She had at least one further abusive relationship and quit her job, telling her boss that she was going travelling with a group of friends. In 2001, her old flatmate saw her in the street and called out to her but Joyce hurried on. Later that year, Martin had an unexpected phone call, Joyce asked to stay with him, she stayed on his sofa for nearly 7 months. Each day she left for work in the city, but she looked “scruffy”, “she had changed”, Martin later found a slip showing her to be working as a cleaner. Martin’s attempts to help her made her feel pressured and one day she disappeared.

A women’s shelter re-housed her in Wood Green. In 2003, shortly before she died she was in hospital for a peptic ulcer, her medical notes show she listed her bank manager as her next of kin . Her friends wonder if her asthma was her cause of death, or the ulcers she suffered from. One is suspicious that she may have committed suicide another is sure it was murder.

There are many areas that are not touched on, her sisters refused to participate but it is known that she refused to take their calls many years before her death. Who were the presents for that she had been wrapping before she died? Was anyone expecting a visit from her? Why did none of the neighbours check on her or inform the authorities that she had not been seen, especially as they had noticed a smell and heard the tv. They had tried knocking but she had not answered her door and say they put the smell down to the bins downstairs. And of course, was her death really due to natural causes? But this was not what the film was about, instead it highlights the importance of friends and family and the dangers of the increasingly isolated, self-centred world in which we live.

In the wrong hands this film could have been “grotesque and… glamourised, in a way that would have been so wrong” star Zawe Ashton, reflects. Instead Morley manages to stay “tender, sensitive (and) true”. Morley states that Ashton was picked for the role not only because of her likeness to Joyce but for her ability to “go deep and dark but also the ability to ultimately be light”.

No certificate                    95 minutes                           Released: 2011

My rating: 7/10 could have been more thorough but well worth a watch – a story that will stick with you long after you’ve watched it.

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