Dreams of a Life: Film Review

Dreams of a Life Still - P 2012

Dreams of a Life Still - P 2012

Engrossing doc pairs interviews with haunting reenactments of a woman's mysterious life and death.

Carol Morley's doc follows the life of Joyce Vincent, who died in her flat in London in 2003 and her body discovered three years later.

A woman dies alone in a London flat, and isn't discovered for three years -- so long her flesh has "melted into the carpet." The TV is still on when her skeleton is found.

But Joyce Vincent wasn't a mentally ill hermit or a woman so old she'd outlived anyone who would notice her absence: She was 38, beautiful, and had been the "center of attraction" for multiple circles of friends -- none of whom realized she'd died, because they (and the older sisters who survived her) were so used to her sharing only a sliver of herself with them.

Carol Morley's sadly fascinating Dreams of a Life, which plays like a more artful cousin to TV's true-crime docs, slowly assembles a portrait of Vincent, unfolding in a way that should earn fans in its niche theatrical run.

Baffled that no one seemed to know Vincent when newspapers wrote about her grisly discovery, Morley placed ads in newspapers and on taxicabs, eventually finding various former coworkers, lovers and roommates. She puts many onscreen from the film's start, capturing some of the story's enigmatic quality by forcing us to slowly piece together how each interviewee knew her and which ones know which of the others. She's thrifty with other facts as well -- occasionally cutting to a slow pan of her investigation's Post-it-covered notes, letting us glean bits of a timeline she's loath to lay out plainly.

This enigmatic approach is beautifully matched by the reenactment footage Morley turns to frequently: In almost entirely dialogue-free scenes, she offers actress Zawe Ashton -- a stunner who captures the guileless sexual charisma Vincent's friends describe -- in settings that emphasize the young woman's ability to charm those around her while revealing little of her past. (Other scenes, perhaps based on interviews with family members who didn't want to appear on camera, use a younger actress to envision her childhood.)

The movie's patchwork, nonlinear quality helps us forgive the many questions it leaves unanswered. Early on, viewers may expect dramatic revelations and sensational mysteries lie in store. In end, though, Morley seems to have downplayed some of the story's more lurid possibilities out of respect to the more haunting questions raised by a woman no one seems truly to have known.

Production Company: Film 4, Cannon and Morley Productions, Soho Moon Pictures
Cast: Zawe Ashton, Alix Kuka-Cain, Neelam Bakshi, Cornell S. John
Director-Screenwriter: Carol Morley
Producers: Cairo Cannon, James Mitchell
Executive producers: Katherine Butler, Tabitha Jackson, Alan Maher, Paul McGowan
Directors of photography: Mary Farbrother, Lynda Hall
Production designer: Chris Richmond
Music: Barry Adamson
Costume designer: Leonie Prendergast
Editor: Chris Wyatt
No rating, 94 minutes.