Would anyone miss you? Nobody noticed when Joyce Vincent died in her bedsit above a shopping mall in North London in 2003. Her body wasn’t discovered for three years, surrounded by Christmas presents she had been wrapping, … see full wiki
In January of 2006, the severely decomposed body of a woman was found in a bedsit flat above a shopping mall in the Wood Green district of North London. By pathology, it was determined that she had remained undiscovered for approximately three years. Her body was surrounded by Christmas presents, and apparently, she died in the process of wrapping them. The television set, which sat in one corner of the room, had been left on the entire time. The virtually skeletal condition of the remains meant that she could only be identified by comparing dental records with a photograph of her smiling. Her name was Joyce Carol Vincent, and at the time of her death, she was thirty-eight years old. Although the grim discovery would be mentioned in local newspapers, details regarding Vincent’s personal life, including a picture of her, were noticeably missing.
Due to the state she was found in, a specific cause of death could not be determined, and the coroner recorded an open verdict. It remains unknown to this day, although it’s strongly believed that she died of natural causes. Filmmaker Carol Morley read Vincent’s story in the daily tabloid The Sun and was haunted by the questions it raised. Now I am, too. How is it possible that the local council, the housing association, and the utility companies didn’t notice mounting unpaid bills? How could her neighbors attribute the stench of decaying flesh to dumpsters? Why were the police unwilling to delve any further into the case? The official explanation, according to what Member of Parliament Lynne Featherstone was told, was that there was nothing to answer to in terms of foul play. How they figured out Vincent wasn’t murdered in the first place has not been made entirely clear.
Morley has channeled her fascination with this story into Dreams of a Life, a morbidly curious, deeply tragic, strangely compelling documentary constructed entirely from hearsay. It shows that Vincent’s life was just as much of a mystery as her death; the scraps we’re fed about her are provided by interviewees that at best knew her superficially. Listen to them talk, and you’ll repeatedly hear them qualify their statements with phrases like, “I think,” “I believe,” “Maybe,” “I seem to remember,” and, “It could be,” among many others. It would appear she never let anyone get too close to her, which is ironic given the fact that, by all accounts, she was a beautiful woman and had a fairly active social life. She would ultimately lose touch with everyone, and by the time her body was discovered, many of her former friends and acquaintances didn’t initially realize the tabloids were referring to the woman they knew.
The interviewees were found only after Morley placed an ad with various publications and internet sites. We see the ad printed on the side of a black cab: “Did you know Joyce Carol Vincent?” Even then, it took months to get a response. Of the people Morley features, three stand out as the most interesting. One is Martin Lister, who met Vincent in 1985 when he worked negotiating client renewals for a shipping company; Vincent was twenty at the time and was his boss’ secretary. They would date for three years and then sporadically keep in touch until 2002. The last time she was in his life, he claims, she was staying in his flat and was seemingly in some kind of trouble. He says that she knew every inch of the city, having moved at least once a year. He learned very little about her, although he recalls her telling him about her Indian mother, who died when she was eleven, and her African father, a carpenter. This contradicts what was published, namely that her parents were from the Caribbean.
Another featured subject is Catherine Clark, who befriended Vincent when they were renting a room in the home of musician Kirk Thorne. She wasn’t surprised when she learned that Vincent had spent some time in a battered women’s shelter, for she knew that Vincent had attracted many men into her life. Perhaps her isolation towards the end of her life had something to do a controlling boyfriend. This could account for why her older sisters, who allegedly raised her following their mother’s death, were only briefly seen during Vincent’s inquest and didn’t want to participate in this film. And then there’s Alistair Abrahams, a former music manager and Vincent’s ex-boyfriend. He too describes a beautiful, fun woman who never shared her past. He recalls when they attended a Nelson Mandela tribute concert in 1990 and how she shook Mandela’s hand.
Just about everyone in the film expresses disbelief and guilt over not knowing something had happened to her. They don’t understand how the woman they knew – a happy, bubbly spirit with a beautiful singing voice and aspirations of being a pop star – could have possibly ended up in a bedsit and died alone. Morley attempts to fill some of the gaps with strategically placed reenactments, which feature Zawe Ashton and Alix Luka-Cain as the adult and child versions of Vincent respectively. It was reported that Vincent was medically treated for a peptic ulcer, and so Morley depicts her looking gravely ill and doubling over in pain the night she died. Perhaps it happened that way, and perhaps it didn’t. Dreams of a Life raises a lot of questions, but the most important is: How is it possible for someone to slip through the cracks in today’s fast-paced, technologically innovative, socially centered world?