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My Most Underrated Film: ‘Dreams of a Life’

The social connections that tie humans together have long been under discussion before coronavirus and lockdowns tore us apart. In a globalised world, belonging, identity and place have become far more uncertain. Centuries ago, individuals would have only known those who lived around them, for better or worse.

This rapidly altering identity has catalysed atomisation, where individuals feel separated from wider society. At its darkest, most extreme end is the question of whether anyone would miss you if you were gone. This provides the bedrock of Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life, a 2011 chilling, engrossing and ultimately deeply saddening documentary-drama.

Zawe Ashton stars as Joyce Vincent, a woman who died in December 2003 while wrapping presents. The catch? Her body in a Wood Green bedsit wasn’t discovered until January 2006. When Carol Morley read this story in a national tabloid, she was desperate to find out more about this woman that nobody had thought to look for in over two years.

Morley’s next five years were spent piecing together the life of a woman who had quite literally fallen off the radar. The director took out advertising space on taxis to find people who knew Joyce and could describe in depth who she really was. The film’s story is nothing but a tragedy. There are so many layers of abandonment, neglect and disconnection that allowed Vincent to vanish from these people’s lives without a trace. That she could simply be found in her home only exacerbates this harrowing story further.

The film’s story is nothing but a tragedy

Many of those interviewed were unaware Joyce Vincent had died until Morley asked them to appear in her film. While they may have heard about the woman discovered dead in her flat for over two years, the interviewees discounted it as someone else. They presumed it couldn’t have been Joyce. Perhaps that is a fundamental part of human nature: whenever there is a negative story on the news, we assume it hasn’t affected those apparently closest to us.

Joyce’s story is honestly and revealingly told. She becomes far more than simply a victim of abandonment but someone who seemed to be living an innovative life that was improving. Though references are made to Joyce’s potentially strained relationship with her family, this is never fully developed. All of Joyce’s sisters refused to be interviewed for the film, meaning that an element of speculation is required.

A searing, interweaving examination of a woman supposedly living the high life

However, this doesn’t prevent the docudrama from being a searing, interweaving examination of a woman supposedly living the high life. For over a decade, she worked in the City of London for various companies as a secretary. Joyce was obviously someone who was driven and determined, or so her colleagues thought. The combination of interviews and Zawe Ashton’s performance paints a picture of an ambitious, bright and bubbly woman. At her leaving party, colleagues assumed she was going on an exciting adventure abroad.

Dreams of a Life is, therefore, a searing tale of how the masks we wear, whether we like it or not, vary drastically from person to person. Joyce’s other friends describe someone who was often difficult to contact and frequently moved from house to house without any notice. Though presenting the demeanour of someone with a bright future, she was actually far more vulnerable.

Dreams of a Life presents so many questions. How was the smell not noted? It was blamed on waste bins. What about Joyce’s TV that stayed on for three years? The building was always noisy. Who paid the rent? Benefits agencies by direct debit. With a final shot of Joyce herself at a 1990 Nelson Mandela Wembley Concert, the most important question is how Joyce’s friends and colleagues simply lost touch with her, never thinking to reach out. It is here that the film is at its most thought-provoking and wounding.

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