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Non-Review Review: Dreams of a Life

From Irish director Carol Morley, Dreams of a Life is a fascinating and occasionally heartbreaking exploration of the death of Joyce Vincent, the young lady found dead in her flat above a London Shopping Centre. Joyce had been dead for three years before anybody noticed, her body only recovered when her landlord secured a repossession order for the small, sparsely decorated flat where she had been living. The most surreal detail of all, and one of the lingering questions at the end of the document, concerns the Christmas presents found wrapped beside her body. Who were they for? And how did their intended recipients never notice that Joyce was missing.

Over the course of the ninety-minute runtime, Morley attempts to build a character portrait of the young woman who could vanish so easily, so completely unnoticed by those around her. Combined with some affecting reconstructions, Morley draws on testimony from ex-boyfriends, schoolmates, acquaintances and colleagues, trying to draw a portrait of a woman who so skilfully slipped through the cracks. It is, for most of the runtime, a deeply fascinating look at a life that you would never imagine ending in such a fashion.

Her friends tell us that she was beautiful, clever and flirtatious. She may not have had a formal education, but she worked in the financial services – she was hardly anonymous there, either. We’re told that when she left a job there was typically a fancy leaving party, and that the men in the office could seldom take their eyes off her. We’re told of the time she met Nelson Mandela and that day she spent quite some time talking to Isaac Hayes on the phone. It’s too Morley’s credit that we’re able to think of Joyce as a fully realised character – not just “pathology and bodily fluids”, as one commentator suggests.

There’s a lot of nuance here, and a lot of detail. Despite her energy and vitality, we’re told that Joyce had “no lifetime friends.” One former lover remarks that she was “like a chameleon”, defining herself by the social circle she happened to be moving in. We’re told that none of her old friends attended a birthday bash organised by her then-boyfriend. Morley points skilfully to absences and blank spots in her subjects life, making it clear that even though she might seem like a developed person, there’s still a lot of mystery around a young woman who seemed to make quite an impression. We are told, for example, of how she ended up in a battered women’s shelter, with the suggestion that she had been physically abused by an ex-boyfriend – though the film doesn’t seem to pursue that avenue too heavily.

There are flaws in Morley’s presentation, however. While the film seems to tiptoe around her (presumably living) abusive ex-boyfriend, possibly frightened by the threat of a potentially hefty libel action, it seems strange that the documentary should so casually throw out the idea that Joyce might have been “sexually abused” as a child. It’s treated as a pop psychological explanation for Joyce’s abandonment issues, and the movie overlays the insinuation with footage of Joyce’s father. Her father died in 2004, so he and his family have no recourse against the allegation – which seems especially frustrating because it is just thrown in there.

It’s particularly jarring because there’s no contribution from Joyce’s sisters. While it’s more than likely that they simply didn’t want to take part at all, Morley gives no sense of whether she contacted them, how they responded, and what their attitude to the documentary might have been. Indeed, with Joyce’s friendships seemingly so transient, one wonders what the point of making a documentary like this might have been with the commentary of those who knew her best – those who grew up with her. Indeed, it seems quite unfair for the film to spend so much time picking over her private family life from half-remembered second-hand recollections, when there was no way of talking to those with actual first-hand knowledge.

Still, while the handling of Joyce’s family is an area where the documentary comes up short, I was impressed with how throughly Morley tackled the systemic failure. Indeed, one early interviewee remarks that Morley seems to have done a more thorough job of piecing together Joyce’s life and times than the police themselves. We wonder, along with several of the commentators, how nobody could have even noticed the unpaid electricity bill, or complained about the smell. How could Joyce fall so completely off the radar when she was part of the system? Surely the fact she’d been in a shelter should have meant somebody was looking out for her? The closest it came, it seems, is neighbours occasionally complaining about the television that had been left on for three years.

It’s a pretty damning look at the way that modern society has atomised itself, and Morley ha found a compelling subject to tackle that issue in Joyce. While Morley’s tackling of Joyce’s family life might seem a bit awkward at times, it’s still a haunting portrait of an individual who managed to get so completely lost in the system that nobody ever noticed she was gone at all.

Dreams of a Life opens at the IFI on the 6th January 2012.

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