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Dreams of a Life

Catherine von Ruhland

Directed by Carol Morley
Certificate tbc, 90 mins­


There is a well-known riff from Bridget Jones's Diary about the thirtysomething singleton's fear of being found long dead, 'half-eaten by an Alsatian.' The discovery of Joyce Vincent, the 38-year-old subject of Morley's thought-provoking documentary wasn't quite Jones's flippant nightmare made flesh, but it reflected a real-life horror story.  For, found three years after her death in 2003 in a London flat, among the Christmas presents she'd been wrapping, and with the telly still on, Joyce Vincent's skeletal remains could only be identified by her dental records.

There were so many unanswered questions that when Morley read about the case in the Sun, 'I just knew it was my kind of destiny to make a film about her. I couldn't leave her to be forgotten.' Over the next five years, she tracked down those who had known Joyce, and with both Citizen Kane and Agnes Varda's Vagabond as fictional blueprints, pieced together Joyce's story.  

In Dreams of a Life, Morley nobly attempts to honour a lost person. But the film's title is apt: our perceptions of anyone will never be the whole truth. The film is a collection of individuals' memories of the Joyce they knew, and reconstructions of episodes from her life with Alix Luka-Cain and Zawe Ashton playing her younger and adult self.

The impressions and memories of work colleagues and exes sometimes conflict. There are moments where you feel that Joyce's privacy is not being respected. The dramatisations, while based on fact, are ultimately supposition. We cannot know what Joyce felt about her life and living alone. There is a strong indication that she had difficulties with emotional attachment and while, by all accounts strikingly beautiful and vibrant, she feels something of a ghost within her own story.

There are notable gaps in the film where individuals could not be found or were unwilling to talk. Joyce's father, sisters and fiancé are absent. (During a hospital stay shortly before her death, she cited 'bank manager' as next of kin).
Her  tale could be read as an example of lack of community in modern life - she lived above a bustling shopping centre - and the friends and colleagues featured here are as confused as anyone about how every single one of them lost touch. Yet dying alone is not a new phenomenon, and the length of time her death went unmarked is seen as tragic only by those left behind. That her housing association, the electricity company, and even the television licence people did not notice her absence is in some ways most startling. It brings to mind those families fleeing their burning Tottenham flats during this summer's riots - only to find to their horror that there was no police or fire service to meet them.  The unspoken conclusion of Dreams of a Life is that a network of efficient services is as important to any community as our social connections.

Catherine von Ruhland