DREAMS OF A LIFE (2011)
Directed and Written by Carol Morley
Dogwoof Productions, 95 minutes, not-rated
When is a mystery not a mystery, a documentary not a documentary, and a feature-length film not worthy of being one? I can think of quite a few cases for each scenario, but few combine all three drawbacks with the prosaic dullness of Dreams of a Life.
The film’s hook intrigues. In 2006, British authorities broke into the North London apartment of Joyce Carol Vincent to evict her. Vincent, a vivacious and gorgeous young woman of West Indian descent, was discovered sitting on her sofa with the TV playing, and surrounded by a pile of Christmas presents. Or, more accurately, her putrefying bodily fluids were found puddled on the rug beneath her skeleton. Forensics revealed she had died in 2003. Writer/director Carol Morley sought to unravel how a popular and intelligent young woman in her twenties who seemingly had many friends and had held down responsible jobs could die alone in her flat without anyone noticing or making inquiries. Joyce had even made a few records, so somebody should have noticed, right? Quite a mystery, yes? No.
We learn in the first ten minutes that there is no mystery; Joyce was a serial groupie who latched onto people for short periods, vanished, and moved onto a new group (or lover). After 15 minutes we discover that Joyce was not quite what she claimed to be–not nearly so well educated, posh, or well connected as she let on. Had Morley stopped there, she might have had a tight little short film that could have created a minor stir in independent film festivals. Instead, she drags out the non-drama for another 80 minutes. Former partners, coworkers, club acquaintances, and musical collaborators go before the camera to tell us what I’ve already related. Rule one of a documentary is that it must record and document something. But Morley’s subjects have so little to say that she engages in two hard-to-overlook sins: she allows those behind the camera to repeat the same non-revealing items ad infinitum, and she supplements their lack of revelation with partially imagined re-creations using professional actors. (Zawe Ashton stands in for Joyce, Cornell John for her father, and so on.) Is this even a documentary once the corpse is collected? The threads of Joyce’s life are so few and the story so thin that Morley had to do something to get an hour and a half of usable footage, but the film feels like a two-page undergrad paper padded to five.
I don’t mean to sound callous, but Joyce Vincent left behind very little except an inflated view of her own musical talent and a penchant for conning people. Her egoism was probably a mask for deep insecurity, but the key word is “probably.” We don’t know and we don’t find out. Her life was short and tragic–sad, but hardly distinct from other short and tragic lives. This film wants us to grapple with the question of what we really know about another person. That’s a worthy query, but if the answer in any individual case is “not much,” there’s nothing left to say. So call it a wrap.--Rob Weir