Home Video Hovel- Dreams of a Life, by Aaron Pinkston
Joyce Vincent is the subject of Carol Morley’s documentary Dreams of a Life, hanging in the center of the film like a great big question mark. In 2003 she disappeared without a trace, though she seemed to have friends and people who cared for her, she wasn’t found until three years later, fully decomposed on her living room couch, with her television still on. Dreams of a Life asks how an outgoing, well-liked person can simply be forgotten by the people around her and the people who govern her. Also, what were the events that lead up to this bizarre story? Was she murdered? Did this normally healthy woman die of a strange disease or natural causes?
While the story could feel incessantly morbid (though it inevitably does at times), Morley attacks the film intellectually and emotionally. Instead of focusing on the grim details, it attempts to put together a complete picture of someone’s life through the eyes of those around her. There are even beats in the film that are surprisingly bright, mostly with Joyce’s friends remembering her in her best times. It is in these moments that it is fully realized that the film really isn’t trying to piggyback on a tragic event, but attempt to bottle the life of a mysterious and relatively unknown person — really, giving a person mostly known through a shocking headline a full life experience, showing her as a real person. In this way, the film goes through the full array of cinematic tones and human emotions.
Dreams of a Life has a clear Errol Morris influence, with the straight-on interviews, reenactments and investigative slant. If you don’t get wrapped up in the film, being a Morris clone could be one of your main complaints, but the style helps influence a thorough film. It’s clear that Morley has spent many hours studying this case, finding the particular talking heads, putting everything together for a complete reflection on Joyce’s life. The reenactments are used in two basic ways: as a historical record of her life, especially when she was a young girl growing up in London, and a speculation on the moments before her death. The latter are really powerful, using photographs of her decomposed body to try and put the pieces together — usually this doesn’t give much evidence on what could have happened to her, but is presented in a way that holds weight. The reenactments never feel cheesy, though they couldn’t be confused for reality, they are delicate and dream-like, as the title suggests.
With the docu-drama style, Dreams of a Life is also easily comparable to 2010’s The Arbor. Though it doesn’t have the artistic innovation, they approach their subjects in a similarly delicate, yet whole way, using a complete history to show the makeup of a person. Like The Arbor, the film is bolstered by a really fantastic performance, here by Zawe Ashton. Most films that heavily use reenactments always run against the problem of being a cheap television docu-drama, but Ashton’s performance as Joyce completely eradicates any such argument. The reenactments are heavily stylized, but Ashton exudes authenticity, completely capturing both sides of Joyce: the lively, flirtatious woman who attracted so many people and the devastatingly sad and troubled person who was led to this tragedy. And she does so without saying a word.
There are certainly times throughout the film where I was hoping for a more sensationalist approach, but that’s really never Dreams of a Life’s intention. It seems that would have been the most appropriate idea given the shady story it comes from, but Morley resists. In this way, it doesn’t quite shock or invigorate like Errol Morris at his best or a completely tabloid doc like The Imposter, though it does have a deep-seeded sadness that will stick with you. Most viewers will probably first approach the film as some sort of whodunit, and if that’s all you’re looking for I can see you being underwhelmed by the end. The film can’t possibly answer questions around the still-mysterious circumstances around Joyce’s death. The title nails the tone and the vision, however, and ends up being a perfect way to think about the film.
The DVD, released by the always reliable Strand Releasing, also includes a half-hour behind-the-scenes featurette called “Recurring Dreams.” Branded as a “making of” featurette, it is made with much more artistic value than normal, often matching the mood and style of the film. Its main purpose is to highlight the process of Carol Morley’s work of investigating this incredible story and bringing together the talking heads seen throughout the film, as well as how the film has been received by critics and those involved in the film. It also provides a few other takes on Joyce Vincent that didn’t make it into the doc’s narrative. Most strangely is a seemingly staged interview with Zawe Ashton, but talking in the voice of Joyce. I don’t think it’s required viewing for anyone who sees the film, but it is a pretty wonderful companion piece.