This is a Christmas film. A woman has finished packing some presents. She sits down to watch the TV. She dies. The TV stays on. Three years later, her remains are discovered. The presents are still there.
Or maybe it’s an anti-Christmas film. The real miracle of the movie is that, in spite of its premise, (and this is a documentary, telling a true story), it somehow manages to be in some way not depressing. The weirdness of Dreams of a Life is that we learn that far from being unloved, a victim of our heartless society, Joyce Vincent, the woman in question, was held in deep affection by the people whose lives she had passed through. If this is a mystery movie, it’s one that leaves its puzzle unresolved. The causes of her death, both physical and psychological, remain speculative.
In a way, Dreams of a Life is the biography of the London I have lived in these past 25 years. The modern city is a peripatetic land, full of magic doors and ratholes. You never quite know which one you’re going to pass through next. Vincent, we are told, enjoyed the city. It brought her within touching distance of realising her dream of being a singer. It brought her relationships with people from a variety of races, cultures and different classes. It allowed to be invisible when she wanted, but also to participate in the things which constitute city life: the events, the bars, the streets. Someone describes Vincent as a chameleon. All true city-dwellers are chameleons, capable of switching from one ambience to another; their personalities as much a negative of the world they live in as a positive of themselves.
The director took the bold move of casting an actress to recreate scenes from Vincent’s life. The actress sings and walks and is given one line. At first I thought that this was a mistake, that the audience’s mental picture of the film’s subject would be distorted by the actress Zawe Ashton’s features, but in the end it worked. Another aspect of Vincent’s life is that she grew up in the pre-digital era. Ours will be the last generation whose memories are captured within minds, not on hard drives. There are few photos of Vincent: she remains a blank slate upon which we can draw our own picture. Ashton remains an approximation of the woman who vanished; her mystery all the stronger for the lack of documentary material to reflect the accounts of her given by friends and lovers.
It seems likely that we have all of us who have lived in this city over the past twenty years known our own version of Joyce Vincent. Perhaps for some she is what we became: someone who vanished from their lives, who mattered for a while and then moved on. This is where Morley’s sympathetic approach reveals another truth, less tragic, more mundane. The city is a place almost designed for transience. The people Morley tracked down to tell us about Joyce come across as good-hearted and caring. It’s not such a bad society we inhabit, even if it has cracks. And whilst this is but a partial story of its subject’s life, with the crueller aspects under-explored, the film still succeeds in being somehow celebratory. All the lonely people are perhaps not quite as lonely as they seem. The closing image need not be the one by which they are remembered. Morley seems to restore Joyce Vincent’s self-respect, counteracting the obvious, tragic figure of the newspaper headlines. As such, Dreams of a Life pulls off the odd trick of being both affirmation and condemnation of our culture at the same time. By choosing to tell the unheralded story of one of the city’s unknown warriors it succeeds in being one of the most telling documentaries about London I have ever seen .