(Carol Morley, UK/Ireland, 2011) 91 minutes


Director: Carol Morley
Producers: Cairo Cannon, James Mitchell
Writer: Carol Morley
Cinematography: Mary Fairbrother,
  Lynda Hall
Editor: Chris Wyatt
Music: Barry Adamson
Zawe Ashton (Joyce Vincent)
Alix Luka-Cain (young Joyce)
Neelam Bakshi (mother)
Cornell S John (father)
and Mandy Allen, Prue Almond,
Kim Bacon, Daniel Roberts,
William Barthorpe, Alison Campsie

Reviews and notes

2011 London,
2012 Karlovy Vary, Wellington, Athens, Reykjavik

The discovery of the decomposed remains of Joyce Vincent, aged 38, in a flat above a North London shopping centre in 2006 brought headlines heavy with the morbid implications of urban anonymity. She had died almost three years earlier surrounded by Christmas shopping; the heating and the TV set were still on, her hallway heaped with junk mail. Fascinated by Joyce’s story, filmmaker Carol Morley (The Alcohol Years) launched a wide-scale search for the friends, lovers, acquaintances and family that the tabloids had failed to flush out. Her film is a skilful assembly of subsequent interviews with the willing and dramatisations of speculated key events. The Joyce glimpsed in these sometimes contradictory accounts is no bedsit spinster cliché but a vital, attractive woman whose identity seems to have shifted as she moved from crowd to crowd; in other words, a distinctly and disturbingly metropolitan creature.
- Bill Gosden, NZIFF 2012.

Joyce Vincent entered most people's lives fleetingly as the subject of a 2006 press cutting, shocking in its brevity, about a London woman whose skeletal remains were discovered almost three years after her death in a bedsit, in front of a flickering television and surrounded by half wrapped Christmas presents. The mystery of Joyce's death presumably stuck to director Carol Morley like a burr, since the filmmaker turned detective to painstakingly piece together her story for this melancholy and compassionate drama-documentary, about the life behind the death that briefly symbolised our atomised society. Morley's got form in recreating missing lives, having hunted for her own forgotten teenage self in the memories of others for the tartly solipsistic The Alcohol Years (2000).

Here she uses the same methodology of small ads and lengthy interviews with friends and colleagues to better and more thoughtful effect, to excavate the memory of the truly vanished Joyce. Creating a dense, careful collage of interviews with tearful childhood friends, rueful old boyfriends and borderline-catty flatmates, she uses their overlapping insights as the basis for wispy, impressionistic reconstructions of Joyce's experiences. Though blandly shot and repetitive in their content (shock, hazy reminiscence, regret registering anywhere from mild to self lacerating), the interviews themselves are very telling. In front of a blurry, blown-up A-Z street map disconcertingly resembling mottled postmortem flesh, the interviewees mostly reveal themselves as unreliable narrators, their accounts coloured by lust (one engagingly rues not sleeping with her), blind admiration or fond detachment. Joyce emerges as the most unreliable narrator of all, a beautiful, bubbly but secretive girl intent on getting ahead, who slipped from one man and one social circle to another for two decades while revealing very little about herself along the way.

Morley even builds up her own wistful portrait of Joyce through the welter of dramatic reconstructions dotting the film. When they work, as in a drawn-out but poignant sequence in which failed singer Joyce croons My Smile Is Just a Frown Turned Upside Down into a hairbrush to an imaginary audience, they add an inventive depth as well as a frisson. Filling in for hard evidence, as in a rather Crimewatch glimpse of rumoured domestic abuse, or overstretched interludes of the child Joyce performing for her family and spying on her philandering father, they feel like pop-psychology padding rather than perceptive interludes. A trim wouldn't have gone amiss here. Still, the film is smart enough to signal that its version of Joyce is as fractured and partial as the others being paraded, nimbly changing a stripogram from policeman to vicar at a party, as voiceover memories contradict one another.

Imaginative but always respectful, the film's quiet tone and dogged investigations set it apart from similar but more theatrical drama-dots such as The Arbor (2010), which used an eye-catching combination of real-life soundtrack testimony and stylised dramatisations. Dreams of a Life handles Joyce's memory, and its interviewees, with care, avoiding prurient speculation about her lifestyle or her death, as it gradually lets her longtime friend and onetime boyfriend Martin confess his wretchedness at losing her...

As the picture of Joyce's later life fades to snippets of gossip and conjecture about her slide into isolation and poverty, she eludes even Morley's close scrutiny, despite the convincing interplay of stoicism and aching loneliness that Zawe Ashton brings to her portrayal. The film's final scenes have a haunting ambivalence – is Joyce preparing for relaxation or eternal rest? – as she sinks into the death that will bring her the fame life denied her.
- Kate Stables, Sight & Sound, January 2012.

Weblink: Preceded by Abandon Ship a new New Zealand short film by Katherine McRae

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