Dreams of a Life (2011)
Dir. Carol Morley
Written by Carol Morley
Starring Zawe Ashton, Nelson Mandela
DREAMS OF A LIFE begins with an extremely intriguing and depressing premise. Around Christmas in 2003, an English woman named Joyce Carol Vincent died alone in her apartment. Somehow, her death managed to go apparently unnoticed for three long years. When her landlord finally got a locksmith to unlock her door for failure to pay rent, police found remains too decomposed to visually identify or determine cause of death -- a skeleton and a stain, essentially. The TV was still on. Police searched for clues; witnesses, co-workers, family, friends, all without success. It seemed as if Joyce Vincent was a ghost, whose only interaction with the world came in signing the lease to an apartment. How does a thing like this happen? How, in this interconnected world, can a person fall through the cracks like that? How does someone’s death go completely unremarked on, unreported, and apparently unnoticed? For three long years?
It seems like the perfect setup to talk about the festering specter of modern alienation. The people who disappear into the system, the lonely, the elderly, the adrift, quietly sitting alone in a million apartments across the world, separated from their neighbors by nothing but a thin wall and a universe of cold, technological indifference. It’s easy to picture Joyce, a lonely, elderly white lady, no children, husband dead, alone in the world and unable to draw so much as a glance from a fellow human, even in death.
|This story made Rupert Murdoch ever so slightly richer.|
That would be an interesting movie, but it turns out that DREAMS OF A LIFE is even more interesting than that, and in fact borders on the shocking. Because Joyce Carol Vincent was not at all the person you might assume she was, nor is her story as clear-cut as it would appear. We know this because director Carol Morley decided to go on her own campaign to track down people who might have known Joyce Vincent, complete with billboards, side-of-van ads, the whole works. And, amazingly, she succeeded where the police and authorities had failed: she found people who knew Vincent; a lot of people. And from there things simply get more and more unexpected.
Turns out Vincent is about as far away from the frail old English spinster as you could imagine. She was a young woman, only in her early 30s at the time of her death. The daughter of a Jamaican immigrant, she is remembered by a slew of ex-boyfriends, co-workers, and acquaintances from all walks of life as being outgoing, charming, beautiful. She dated musicians, recorded music, had long phone calls with Isaac Hayes and dinner with Stevie Wonder. She met Nelson Mandela! A former boyfriend admits that he had read the initial news story about her death but hadn’t come forward simply because he didn’t believe it could possibly be the same Joyce Carol Vincent that he had last seen only a few years earlier. And yet, it was. Somehow, the garrulous, captivating, and attractive young lady in the photos managed to die friendless and alone. How?
In some ways, as much as Morely’s film answers questions about who Joyce Vincent was it also makes her even more mysterious. Morely uncovers a woman who seemed to be known to many, but maybe really understood by no one. Someone who moved easily between different groups of people, but also made sure those groups never met each other. Someone who seemed like different things to different people. Was she being deliberately deceptive with someone, or was she just a an enigma onto which people projected whatever they wanted to imagine? Hard to believe you could fit into so many world and remain yourself in all of them. Was it easier, in the end, to be part of none of them?
The net result is that although the film resolves the initial riddles about the Joyce Vincent case which baffled the authorities, it raises more than it solves. Vincent was a mystery even to those who seemed to know her best. Not one of her boyfriends -- both of whom she stayed with, on and off, for several years -- had ever met her family, or is really able to offer almost anything of substance about them. Her father was a bit of a player, her mother (an Indian immigrant) died young. But what exactly this all meant to her, or how it shaped her... on this topic they have no answers. Vincent was in life, it seems, the same as she was in death: an enigma about which we can speculate endlessly, but never know.
Indeed, even as people who seem to have known her extremely well offer interesting and tantalizing tidbits, you get a sense that there are large parts of this story missing. Vincent would disappear from people’s lives for long stretches, sometimes abruptly and always, seemingly, without explanation (which explains how no one worried about her in those three years she lay decomposing on her couch). There’s a consensus that she seemed to have had a string of abusive boyfriends (she checked herself into a shelter for victims of domestic violence near the end of her life) but no one seems to have any idea who they might have been, or what might have happened. Morely’s chart of Vincent’s life --assembled like a police file in a procedural thriller -- has entries like “finance breaks off engagements” which appear, uncommented on, in the background, sometimes even appearing to contradict the story being told by the people interviewed. Wait, fiance? Who? What happened? Nobody seems to know. There’s a tacit suggestion that her father may have been abusive, and that her life ended up spiraling back into that cycle of abuse. But there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of any of this except general impressions left upon her friends, many of whom had not seen her in years. Would these gaps help explain the mystery of how Vincent ended up quitting her high-paid office job and working as a maid from a run-down, government-subsidized apartment? Or would they just offer more puzzles? Did anyone truly know this person?
|Beats being a civil war reenactor. More skin-tight vinyl dresses, less beards.|
This is gripping stuff, but unfortunately Morely’s direction sometimes needlessly oversells it, pushing too hard for an emotional hook which is already there in the bare bones of the story. The film is already rife with powerful and deeply sad moments, why push the point with long musical montages and meandering reenactments? It’s a jaw-dropping moment when we first hear Vincent sing. Holy shit, that’s her voice! We’re hanging on every word about this woman, and suddenly she takes a huge step out of the ether towards us, becoming viscerally real and nearly tangible. Hearing the vitality in her voice and feeling this unexpected and somewhat disorienting connection to someone we only met after her death is a truly profound experience. But does it need to go on for the song’s entire runtime, while a reenactor playing the part dances around her ratty apartment?
Aside from THE THIN BLUE LINE (which uses reenactors to visually depict the alternate scenarios it explores) I’m generally of the opinion that reenactments in documentaries are not a good idea. You gotta either tell a story using what’s available well enough for us to imagine it, or you gotta just make a fictionalized version if you insist upon recreating the scenario. You can’t have both; it just makes the whole enterprise feel fraudulent and manipulative. Still, this one has --at least on paper-- an interesting idea for the reenactments: it depicts a silent Vincent (portrayed by actress Zawe Ashton) on her last day of life, reconstructing what might have been going through her mind by examining the minutiae of her death scene. We see her pick out the blue floral dress she was found wearing. See her wrap the Christmas presents that were sitting around her (who were they for? They never say!) See her put on the last record she would ever play. Kind of neat, but probably unnecessary in light of the real images available of her, and certainly unnecessary to fill up what seems like a full fourth of the film’s runtime. There’s a germ of a good idea there, and had it been used better it might have helped give the film structure and focus, as well as offering a visual reference. But as it is, it just adds bloat to what would otherwise be a lean and elegant exploration. Even more damning, Morely’s yin for drama also pushes her to ad a subtle intimation early on that foul play might have been involved, a pretty indefensible and baseless hook in a movie which certainly doesn’t need any other hooks. Had Morely simply trusted the story itself to move you -- rather than add a bunch of extraneous manipulators just to be sure you’re feeling things -- she might have had a true classic on her hands, instead of a just a fascinating film.
Still, it’s hard to trust. That, I think, is the main point here, and the thing that makes it not just a fascinating story but a unique and important one. We fret sometimes about the loss of a cohesive family unit, the social community, how no one talks anymore, how instant communication has alienated us rather than brought us together. But in the case of Joyce Vincent, we’re reminded that genuine human connection is more complicated than merely exchanging words with a real person every once in awhile. Connection is about trust, about allowing yourself to be vulnerable to someone else, about offering some kind of truth about yourself. That, it seems, was what eluded poor Joyce Vincent. She didn’t move through life without human contact, as the original reports might lead one to believe -- but perhaps she managed to do it without much genuine connection. A busy life, but maybe a lonely one anyway. The movie might be better if it were more able to help us understand why she ended up this way, but as a portrait --or dream-- of a life we seldom get such a clear look at, it emerges a riveting and deeply moving (if sometimes frustrating) document.