Dreams of a Life

Back in the early nineties, when the radio show 6-0-6 was about comedy and stories rather than manufactured debate, co-host Danny Baker quoted something the great footballer, Chris Waddle, once told him: Waddle said he had no friends, only acquaintances. An unexpected sentiment from a popular talent, and one that came to mind when watching the new British film, ‘Dreams of a Life’.

When the skeleton of a woman, thought to be in her thirties, was found in her flat in London three years after she in died, it was headline news. The description of the television blaring out while a body gradually decomposed in front of it, while Christmas presents gathered dust, was powerful imagery. Coupled with the nagging thought that someone’s disappearance could go unnoticed for three years means it is a tale people still recall now when prompted in conversation.

The initial breaking of the news, the lack of accuracy in the reporting about the deceased woman, and subsequent hate-led blogs and trolling on the subject, led filmmaker Carol Morley to try and find out more about the life and death of the woman, Joyce Vincent, who seemingly disappeared completely when she drew her last breath.

With a mix of documentary and fiction, Morley retells some key moments of Joyce’s life, with an excellent lead performance by Zawe Ashton who, with little dialogue, convincingly portrays a good-looking talented Londoner who was very good at compartmentalising different parts of her life.

Meanwhile, interspersed with that dramatisation, are the thoughts of talking heads of people that knew Joyce, and who, sometimes unwittingly, ably demonstrate that no-one really knew her at all; she was a deliberately private person, and the clips from the interviews at times shed as much light on society’s moors and prejudices on a range of subjects including exam results, perceptions of attractiveness, lifestyle choices, personal identity and race.

There was no blame directed at Joyce in the film, although the immediate reporting that followed news of her discovery suggests, like the protagonist in Albert Camus’ ‘The Outsider’, that there was a resentment because she, as Camus wrote about his character in an afterword of his book, “doesn’t play the game”.

But while the circumstance of the discovery of Joyce’s body made the case out-of-the-ordinary, it is highly unlikely to be unique. In modern day life, and in a fluid and free society, it is totally understandable that individuals may well have a number of different and separate networks of acquaintances and friends, of whom few, if any, really know anything about them. Something this film brilliantly demonstrated. Joyce wouldn’t be the only person in the world whose friends didn’t really know that much about her.

In an interesting and enlightening Q&A following the screening I saw, Carol Morley rightly pointed out it is also not unusual that as people develop as adults they will no-longer “belong” to their families; this is particularly true in an economy where labour and growing regional differences will lead to more transience in the UK, a fact politicians who are in-thrall to focus groups and the agenda of mid-market newspaper editors often tend to ignore when monotonously talking about “families”.

Joyce herself moved around London into a number of different homes in her life, before ending up in a flat in Wood Green, near the big shopping centre and cinema, familiar to everyone who knows the area. An area that is always busy with people, and always fast paced, it is easy to imagine someone getting lost in the crowd. The film captures Joyce’s quieter nature perfectly, using slow motion at times, long silences, laughter, and music, a passion of Joyce which is central to the film.

The feeling of this story though is that Joyce fell through the cracks; she didn’t find a satisfactory balance between independence and sense of community (perhaps best symbolised on screen in recent years by Sarah Lund in ‘The Killing’); perhaps through a hesitancy to confront her problems, as alluded to in the film, but ultimately she had no support.

The assumptions made by the interviewees in the film, and by many who reported and consumed the story originally, is that there is a safety-net for everyone; that ideal needs a joined-up state though, and after three decades where the idea of interventionism has been constantly attacked for political means, the supposed safety-net, if it exists, is now full of big gapping holes.

‘Dreams of a Life’ tells a story of someone thoughtful enough to wrap Christmas presents just weeks after not having anyone she could comfortably give as a contact while in hospital; of a person who experienced the highs of recording a song good enough to score a film, had chats with Gil Scott Heron, but yet also had no help when she had to seek refuge from abuse.

However, surely the greatest legacy of Joyce’s death will be, as an ex-colleague of hers wisely says in the film, the number of people who now check on an acquaintance to see if they may need some support. The story, and the ending of the film, will linger in the mind for a while yet.


The screening and Q&A was at the Genesis Cinema in London.

With echoes of Glory from American Cinema to Bruce Springsteen, and full of the flavour of Escape European Travel brings, The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is available  from Amazon and Smashwords. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.