Directed by: Carol Morley.
Written by: Carol Morley.
Starring: Zawe Ashton (Joyce Vincent).
You most likely heard about the death of Joyce Carol Vincent, even if you do not remember her name. This was the incredibly sad, almost incomprehensible and unthinkable story, of a woman who died in December 2003, and whose body was not discovered until three years later in 2006. For those three years, no one reported her missing, and her body sat, slowly decomposing, in front of her TV, surrounded by Christmas presents. This woman essentially disappeared off the face of the planet – and no one noticed. Her body was so badly decomposed when they found her that no cause of death could be identified. Was it murder? Suicide? Accident? Natural causes? No one knows for sure, but the police don’t think foul play was involved. Why was she able to go three years without paying rent or utilities and have no one notice? And more importantly, how did this woman not have any family or friends who came looking for her for three years?
The new film Dreams of a Life tries it’s best to answer these questions – and does fill in a lot of the blanks, but still leaves many of the most pressing questions unanswered. This is not really a flaw in the movie, but actually proves to one of its strengths. For all the information about Joyce Carol Vincent that the movie uncovers, she still remains an enigma, and the reasons why she died and was left undiscovered are still unknown. Part of this is because many of the government organizations that are involved aren’t really speaking – and neither is Joyce’s family. The movie cannot really find anyone who had contact with Joyce after early 2002. What we do know is that early in 2001, she left a well-paying job at Ernst & Young, although no one knows the reasons. Some say she was headhunted by another firm, some say she left to go “travelling”. But later in 2001, she calls an old boyfriend up out of the blue and lives on his couch for a few months – and ends up working a maid’s job. After she left there, she spent time in a home from battered women, and eventually ended up in her low rent “bedsit” where she would be found. The question of “why” this happened never becomes clear.
What Dreams of a Life does do is put a human face on this tragedy – although a mysterious one. The movie finds many old friends of Joyce’s – and none of them can associate the Joyce they knew, with the lonely woman who wound up all alone and dead at the age of 38. They all recount a beautiful, vibrant young woman who loved life – loved going out and having fun, had a beautiful singing voice and dreamed of being a pop singer. Men were drawn were to her. She gave off an impression of being well educated, although she wasn’t, and happy-go-lucky, although obviously she wasn’t, at least not at the end.
What does out however is how no one really knew Joyce. She is described by her former boyfriends as a woman with no real interests or friends of her own. Whoever she was with at the time, their interests became her interests, their friends, became her friends. She moved constantly, and quit jobs almost as often. Friends say it was not unusual for them not to hear from her for weeks or months at a time. You could go from being great friends with her one day, to completely on the outside the next. Parts of her childhood help to suggest why her family may have not been involved with her life when she died.
Overall, however, Dreams of a Life leaves Joyce Carol Vincent as much as an enigma at the end of the film as she was at the beginning. The movie tries to fill in the gaps in her life with some “speculative” dramatized scenes – featuring a brilliant Zawe Ashton as a sad eyed Joyce. These scenes pull on the heartstrings, perhaps a little too heavily, but they are still effective. Like the rest of the movie, they try to get to know the real “Joyce”, and end up not being able to explain her.
I know that some people will be frustrated by Dreams of a Life. It is natural that people want a movie to answer all the questions it raises – particularly a documentary. But this is a story where there are no answers – or at least none that we can know. Only one person really knows what happened to Joyce Carol Vincent, and unfortunately she is dead. But what Dreams of a Life does do is put an all too human face on what was a story everyone heard, but few remembered. And more than that, it makes the tragedy universal. How well do we really know anyone? And how close are we all to ending up like Joyce Carol Vincent. She had her reasons for being secretive about her past, she never really let anyone in, and for that she paid a terrible, sad price. And really, we should learn something from this tragedy.