Dreams of a Life is a mesmerising film. It’s beautiful photography seems almost to belong to a different film, and it’s exquisite pacing and narrative arc show Carol Morley to have an iron control over her film.
In part, the film comprises a series of talking heads of the ‘friends’ of Joyce Vincent, whose body was discovered three years after her death. She had died with the TV on and surrounded by Christmas presents that she was in the process of wrapping. Joyce’s friends are photographed, backlit against the kind of cloth that would be found in a professional photographers. Their heads are, to a person, very beautiful, and such slight artificiality is at one with their comments on a woman that they had all known, but ‘given up’ for at least the three years that it took to find her body. Unsurprisingly too, there are a range of contradictions in their reporting of this ultimately enigmatic woman. For a number of them, Joyce was possessed of a wonderful voice which, combined with her wonderful figure and good looks should have offered her a career in pop-music, which she may have craved. But her record producer boyfriend states that she couldn’t sing and had to stay his side of the glass panel.
Interleaved with the talking heads are a series of reconstructions of scenes from Joyce Vincent’s life in which she is played by Zawe Ashton. There is a lot of Joyce walking round West London, or being ill in various places including a women’s refuge. And scenes from the imagined final moments of her life. There is also a very, very powerful reconstruction of the clearing and cleaning of her flat after the removal of her body. All of which are beautifully framed.
Just as well done, to my mind, and equally as powerful, is the film that the director shows of her own board of notes, postits and a time-line of the events of Joyce Vincent’s life. On here, the audience gets glimpses of the people that Morley could not interview; Joyce’s three elder sisters, an enigmatic ‘Polish boyfriend’. And the embargoed notes from the police inquiry and the women’s refuge that Morley could not get access to, even with a Freedom of Information enquiry.
What came across to me most powerfully was the way in which even those who claimed to have loved her most seemed never to have fully engaged with her. There was no sense that these people had asked her any questions about herself, her life, about anything really. Yes, this was a portrait of society at its most atomised; and, yes, people do lay undiscovered after their deaths. But mostly this entrancing film was a portrait of a society in which people seemed unable to ask the right questions, or, even if they did, to listen to the answers.