|'An admirable and respectful approach to a subject which could all too easily have slipped into morbid sensationalism'.|
The story of Joyce Vincent, a 38-year-old woman who passed away alone in her London bedsit sometime in December 2003 only for her body to be left undiscovered until January 2006, is one that inherently holds a significant degree of enigma. For many, the question of how somebody living in the 21st Century - in a European capital no less - could be dead for over two years before anyone noticed is one that boggles the mind.
For Carol Morley, director of Dreams Of A Life, whilst this is certainly a key question, it's not the most important one. Morley focuses instead for much of her documentary on who Joyce actually was, what memories the people who knew her had of her and how they felt about the young woman both in life and after her death. It's an admirable and respectful approach to a subject which could all too easily have slipped into morbid sensationalism, but it's also one which ends up restricting Morley's documentary as much as elevating it.
After an opening reconstruction of the moment the body was discovered, which in hindsight feels somewhat superfluous and ill-fitting, Morley spends much of the film offering talking head interviews with Joyce's friends and colleagues. The interviews feel incredibly genuine, with those speaking offering insight across Joyce's life from her schooldays in the early 1970s onwards. Whilst the memories shared are largely positive, painting Joyce as a bubbly and outgoing person, there is also a worrying undercurrent throughout of a woman constantly eager to please and who struggled to form relationships on anything more than a surface level. It's a fascinating portrait that emerges as Morley's greatest achievement.
It is, however, a picture that has also some gaps too great to ignore. None of Joyce's four older sisters - whom we are told essentially raised her after her mother's death during her childhood - choose to take part. It's a gaping hole, which results in Joyce's formative years becoming vague and thinly-drawn largely based on hearsay recounted by those who do take part, only one of whom actually knew her as a child. The absence of other unwilling participants - such as anyone refuge for battered women where Joyce resided near the end of her life - is acknowledged, but this only serves to underline the fact that Morley is only able to present us with a jigsaw puzzle missing a few too many pieces.
As Dreams Of A Life reaches its conclusion, there's a nagging sense that Morley has only brought us a little closer to understanding how Joyce Vincent's life ended the way it did. The exploration of what happened following her death is scant, leaving the film feeling somewhat top-heavy in its presentation of the whole story. There's enough here to like - including Zawe Ashton's sensitive portrayal of Joyce in reconstructed scenes from her life - and the subject matter is never anything less than fascinating, but Morley's filmmaking too often feels vague and a little too lacking in backbone when a shot of gumption is what Joyce's story actually deserves.
Dreams Of A Life is currently available on All 4.