"WOMAN DEAD IN FLAT FOR 3 YEARS": an arresting, somewhat anonymous August 2006 Sun headline. That woman's name was Joyce Carol Vincent and she died in her North London flat in 2003, aged 38. Her remains were discovered three years later, with the television still on, its warm glow flickering over a cold cadaver. Joyce passed through the media and was promptly forgotten - today's news, tomorrow's chip paper.
Having pieced together precious fragments from friends, colleagues and ex-partners, and embellished them with ethereal reconstructions, Carol Morley (The Alcohol Years) and Zawe Ashton (Fresh Meat) have managed to salvage a human from that headline. Joyce, it turns out, was an intoxicatingly beautiful individual with an insatiable lust for life, making her lonely fate far more compelling, and confounding, than the brief tabloid sensation she stirred those summers ago. "Life's too short for defurring kettles", she once said to a colleague who was spending the weekend doing housework. How could the death of someone so vibrant go unnoticed? And how did she die?
Dreams of a Life doesn't have all the answers and nor does it pretend to. While conventional documentaries ostensibly inform and uncover, Morley's investigation has a noir-like quality, leaving many of its mysteries unsolved. And that is why this Dream is so difficult to forget - it lingers on that human need to understand and explain; the same need, presumably, that kept Morley on the case for five fraught years, despite being told time and again that no one would be interested.
Most memorable about Morley's filmmaking, though, is the fairness and compassion at its core. Beside Joyce's body were Christmas presents for friends who didn't check up on her for three Christmases. But when one of her old colleagues admits that "it happens; I didn't see my brother for six years", it becomes impossible to deny, in Morley's own words, that "we too are not in touch with people". Dreams of a Life, then, is actually a wake-up call; while no one can really judge, everyone can reach out and reconnect with someone, somewhere.
This review was first published on Flux.