The BFI London Film Festival showed its true value again yesterday, with the screening of Dreams of a Life. Bringing a small budget, low profile but powerful and engaging film like this to the world’s attention through the Festival is a big part of what makes it such an important event.
Dreams of a Life is the based-on-truth story of Joyce Carol Vincent – a woman who hit the headlines in 2006 for all the wrong reasons. After running up rent arrears of £2,400, bailiffs broke in to her London flat to repossess it, only to discover the skeleton of a woman whose body was so decomposed that it had melted into her living room carpet. 38 year-old Joyce had been dead for three years and in the end had to be identified by her dental records. Poignantly, when she was found, her television was still on and she was surrounded by the Christmas presents that she had been wrapping.
In a Q&A session after the film was shown, the director, Carol Morley, described how randomly coming across a tiny article about Joyce in a newspaper, whilst travelling on the London Underground, had set her off on another journey to make this film. She was struck that a woman could go unmissed like that for three years, as well as by the incongruence of the outside world being streamed relentlessly around Joyce’s lifeless body during all that time, through the flickering images and sounds coming out of her television. The article didn’t give any personal information – it made no mention of the Christmas presents, nor even included a picture of Joyce. Leaving Carol feeling strongly that there was a story still to be told.
Through Dreams of a Life, Carol strives for the realisation of ‘a life imagined’ – Joyce’s life, as it might have been. An opportunity to give Joyce an element of her voice back, through an authentic portrayal of the life that led up to her spending those three years alone in her flat. Using a cleverly entwined mix of documentary and drama, Carol – and the film’s editor, Chris Wyatt – do just that.
After turning detective, Carol tracked down the people that knew Joyce – from her childhood through to her death – some of whom had read about ‘the skeleton in the flat’, without realising that it was their friend. Their candid interviews give remarkable, and sometimes heartbreaking, insight into Joyce’s background, her personality and how much she was adored by everyone who met her. However, the spirit of Joyce is really brought to life through the actress Zawe Ashton, who plays her magnificently in the dramatised scenes, recreating elements from her life over the years. Her captivating performance makes you certain that you are seeing the essence of Joyce personified.
Remarkably, we find out in the Q&A that Zawe didn’t see any of the interviews until after the film was complete. Carol wanted her to work purely from the bare facts, so that her performance wasn’t influenced by anyone’s perception of the Joyce that they knew. Instead, through a combination of old photos, Carol’s script and background research, plus visits to the various parts of London that Joyce had lived in over the years, Zawe created a timeline and visual reference of Joyce’s life that helped her emerge herself in the young woman’s world. And she nails it. For the audience, Zawe’s portrayal matches the description of Joyce given by her friends in their interviews, perfectly. We later find out that Joyce’s friends also think that Zawe completely captures their memories of her.
This is a wonderful film, which I’m so pleased that I had the chance to see.
The fantastically-acted and beautifully-shot dramatic scenes, combined with the incredibly candid interviews of Joyce’s friends and past boyfriends, had me – and others around me – in tears. Despite that, when it ends, you somehow feel pleased and privileged to have known Joyce, even if it was only for 90 minutes. Carol, Zawe and the entire film crew have done a great job – even down to the songs played throughout, to reflect Joyce’s love of music and singing ambitions. Together with Joyce’s friends, they have created a great tribute to her memory. Joyce was a vivacious, intelligent, popular woman, who was perhaps haunted by some demons, but who didn’t deserve to die forgotten in such a way. This film helps celebrate her life, whilst also reminding us all of the importance of reaching out and talking openly to our friends when times are tough.
Check out the film’s website for more information. And over the coming months, Dogwoof pop-up cinemas will be screening Dreams of a Life across the UK. The organisation is looking for ‘Ambassadors‘ to host the events for them. The film touched me so much, I just might get involved.