Review of Dreams of a Life

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A filmmaker sets out to discover details of Joyce Vincent's life, who died in her bedsit in North London in 2003. Her body wasn't discovered for three years, and newspaper reports offered minimal information about her life - there wasn't even a photograph.
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Movie Review: "Dreams of a Life"

-- Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Length: 95 minutes
Release Date: August 3, 2012
Directed by: Carol Morley
Genre: Documentary/Drama

In a world where people can be connected to each other in seconds using mobile phones or the Internet, it is hard to imagine that somebody can die a lonely death in their own apartment, without anyone noticing for three years. That is what happened to Joyce Vincent, the real-life woman at the center of "Dreams of a Life."

The story of Joyce Vincent would be much more believable if she were a recluse, or a woman who had no friends or family. Neither of these things is true in this case, which barely made headlines in 2006. The setting for the true story is north London, where the 30-something Joyce lived in a bedsit. A bedsit is a small apartment, usually one room, where the occupant shares a bathroom with one or more other people living on the same floor. It is basically a loft with a shared bathroom, which makes the fact that nobody noticed she was missing for three years that much more astounding.

The local newspapers barely reported on the case. In fact, a picture of Joyce was not even published to go with the sad story of her demise. If it wasn't for writer/director Carol Morley, she would likely still be an anonymous death that barely made a blip on the social radar. Instead, Morley has crafted a film that tells the story of Joyce's life through interviews with her friends, ex-boyfriends and what Morley could piece together about a woman who was bright, social and vivacious, while at the same time being somewhat guarded and secretive.

Morley doesn't go the regular documentary route with "Dreams of a Life." Instead, she splices together the interviews with dramatizations of what she imagines certain scenes from Joyce's life would have looked like. She begins with Joyce as a child, portrayed by Alix Luka-Cain. After showing some scenes from her youth, the film fast-forwards to her adult life where she is portrayed as having an active social circle full of friends from various walks of life.

The fact that she had so many circles of friends is part of the mystery surrounding Joyce's persona. She is portrayed by a few interviewees as a woman with a bit of an identity crisis. Apparently, she would routinely find a new boyfriend and adopt his worldview. His opinions would become hers, and she would immerse herself in his life. Almost none of the exes that are interviewed give the same recollection of her point of view on life, politics or anything else.

Between and sometimes during the interviews, Morley expertly splices in scenes she filmed with actress Zawe Ashton, who portrays Joyce as an adult. Ashton bears a striking resemblance to the real Joyce, which makes her quietly desperate portrayal all the more haunting. One scene in particular, where Joyce sings into her hairbrush about her smile really being a frown, may stay with you for days after viewing the film.

The film doesn't just dramatize Joyce's life. It also tries to delve into how she died. Since her body had been sitting on her sofa for three years, it was far too decayed to determine a cause of death. In fact, it is unknown exactly how long her body sat in front of her television, which was still turned on when her body was found. Investigators ran tests and estimated that she had been dead for three years. In addition to this, she was surrounded by Christmas gifts that she had been wrapping when she died.

Morley gives some insight into Joyce's medical history, including several trips to the hospital. It is possible she had medical issues that caused a sudden heart attack or stroke, even at her young age. Suicide is also a possibility, though few think this was the case. In the end, the most astounding part about the story is not that she died alone, but that nobody noticed. It wasn't until officials were called in for her non-payment of rent that her body was found.

Morley could have easily used "Dreams of a Life" as a treatise on isolation and how people take others in their lives for granted. She could have pointed fingers and blame at any number of societal ills that could have led to a young woman being dead for three years before anyone took notice. Instead, she paints a portrait of a woman who deserved better than what she got. With "Dreams of a Life," Morley gives her something better with a haunting movie that will make Joyce unforgettable to anyone who sees it.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars