Film Review: Dreams of a Life

Disappointing documentary-fiction hybrid leveraging the true story of a youngish woman found dead and alone in a North London subsidized studio apartment three years after her demise. A pile-up of unanswered questions, unidentified witnesses and the th

Especially in the wake of the far more satisfying doc Searching for Sugar Man, Dreams of a Life promises a similarly themed riveting attempt to unravel the disappearance (here the death) of someone who just seemed to drop off the face of the Earth. In this case it was Joyce Vincent, a 38-year-old of African-Caribbean heritage who died alone in her simple London bedsit above a shopping center. Finally, three years later in 2003, so much stench, so much mail and so many bills not being paid led to her discovery.

No friends, family or recent work colleagues came forth to bring attention to her absence and apparently no addictions or extreme behavior plagued Vincent. All that could be established was that no foul play was involved. Only an asthma attack was suggested as a possible cause of death and only her teeth could be used for identification. She lay among unopened Christmas presents. (Filmmaker Carol Morley conveys that these were presents destined for others, as all bore the same ribbons.) And Vincent’s television had continued playing for the three years until her discovery.

Morley spent five years on this project and did manage to find some of Vincent’s former friends, a schoolmate and apparently a newspaper editor who worked on the story. But none of the talking-head witnesses are identified with titles, so their relationship to Vincent is often murky and must be gleaned from their dialogue. Also problematic is that some of these people come across as actors in the mockumentary mode.

Morley also resorts to a lot of re-enactments that depict Vincent (Zawe Ashton) as a fairly normal adult (she has boyfriends, wants to be a singing star, likes meeting famous people, etc.), as a little girl (Alix Luka-Cain) who adored her mother (Neelam Bakshi) who died when Vincent was still young, and suffered the neglect of an insensitive, flashy father (Cornell S John) who liked stepping out.

While most documentaries grip viewers with an accumulation of facts and evidence, Dreams of a Life drowns in unanswered questions and speculation. Based on the considerable testimony of the unidentified witnesses, Vincent might have been bright, not so bright, very social but really a loner, talented but maybe not, professionally responsible or sloppy, fashionable but unclean, lovely, bubbly, cut-off, lazy, sexy, not promiscuous. She might have been abused as a child and might have ended up in abusive adult relationships. After doing unspecified office work in her earlier adult years, she apparently ended up as a cleaning lady. The contradictions and murk don’t let up, so no sense of Vincent emerges.

Morley does finally manage some emotional tugs near the end when Martin Likster, one of Vincent’s former boyfriends, sheds tears for so sad an ending. But all the ambiguity and mash-up of styles don’t help viewers settle into the story.

What emerges are faint messages regarding the importance of communication amongst family and friends, the specter of a deadening urban anomie, the price of solitude and, on the cold pragmatic side, one last gnawing question: What was the brand of that amazing television that kept going for three years?