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A Terrifying New Quasi-Documentary About a Woman's Mysterious Death

In January 2006, reports broke in London newspapers that Joyce Carol Vincent had been found dead in her bedsit flat in Wood Green, a northern suburb of the city. She was in her late thirties. She had been tall, vivacious and always smartly dressed—she reminded some people of Whitney Houston. She had had an Indian mother and a West Indian father; they were dead now, but Joyce had sisters. No cause of death could be ascertained because she had been dead for nearly three years. The sketch of a corpse was there on the sofa, a window was slightly open, and the television was still playing.

Many people were stopped in their tracks by the story. Was it possible in London, in a building of flats, for a person, an attractive woman, to fade into oblivion, so that no one thought to ask, “Where’s Joyce?” For nearly three years? So many people live alone in a big city, and some are old, less vivid, and without next of kin. They may be missing before they’re gone. But Joyce Vincent did not seem to fit that description. A tremor of anxiety, a fear of societal malfunction, went through London. It seemed like a warning, a measure of the times.

Carol Morley read the stories; she was a filmmaker, so she felt she had to make a movie about the missing person. It took her five years, most of that time spent searching for friends, relatives or lines of possible explanation. The film is called Dreams of a Life (available on DVD, December 11) and it’s offered as a documentary. But Joyce is so mysterious a figure that Morley could not make a whole film out of testimony and evidence. The bedsit itself has been recreated as a set, and there are no images of the skeleton that was found. Morley then turned to some elements of fiction. She found an actress, Zawe Ashton, who would portray the living Joyce in scenes that speculate on the events of her short life. Another actress plays Joyce as a child, and two others represent her parents. This level of invention is needed to offset the sisters not wishing to be interviewed on camera, or to be witnesses. So they are missing people, too.

The film is far more disturbing than satisfying. Its holes or omissions cannot diminish the gaping eloquence of the situation and the questions that arise. But can such a movie even be “satisfying,” or is that falling into the error of regarding it as a story, or a fiction? We see two boyfriends, one white, one black; we see some friends and acquaintances. But their testimony does not add up. Was Joyce really employed in the City at a finance house for four years? Or was she a cleaning woman? Did she hope to be a singer—is that her voice on a recording? Was she abused as a child, making the later attentions of many men all the more difficult for her? Did she really meet Nelson Mandela and Stevie Wonder as she hovered at the edges of the music scene? Was she beaten up by some man, or men, and did she take refuge in a home for battered women? All of these possibilities are suggested, along with the idea that she was an appealing person who had no inner life or consistency. Doesn’t that sound like a collection of roles for an actress? Doesn’t it sound like many actresses?

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The home for battered women is not named or investigated. No doctors are brought into the film, though there is a suggestion that Joyce was in and out of hospital. Was she ill, with an illness that caused her death? Did she have a heart condition—did she fall in love with the wrong men, or let them fall in love with her? Were there abortions? Was she even sometimes a prostitute? Who can tell, without a body to explore? But if she was in hospital, would there not be records somewhere? We are so trained in moving imagery that we cannot overcome the magnetic draw of fiction. I found it hard to watch the film without fleeting thoughts that Joyce might have been murdered. Aren’t people often murdered in movies? Why was that window open in winter? Why was the television still on? Such “thriller” questions merge with the more practical worries—didn’t someone worry about the rent being unpaid, or the utilities bills? Or the smell? Was that why the window was open? Does Wood Green have so many noxious smells, and so many anonymous inhabitants, that no one cared to report the smell to the authorities? Could that timidity last long enough for the decaying flesh and organs to wither away in the glare of the television set, stuck on BBC1 for nearly three years?

The actors are not used to plant the seeds of story. But the voiceless situations created for the film can be very suggestive: in one moment, Joyce is in a nightclub dancing with four men; in another she is alone in her bedsit, cloaked in melancholy. That’s the kind of thing actresses expect to do, and what we expect of them. But sometimes real people just sit on the sofa refusing to let appearance show the turmoil of their thoughts. Was Joyce a suicide? Did she take poison or pills? We can’t tell because there is no stomach or blood system to be tested. Then I wonder if I heard it as fact, or part of another story, that traces of poison or sedatives can linger in the hair. If there was hair left after three years?

The inquest declared that Joyce was dead, but it could provide no cause. So the police were not obliged to keep the case open. Were the sisters too shy or ashamed to come forward and talk on camera? Don’t some of us have relatives we haven’t seen or heard from in years? When Hurricane Sandy struck the Jersey shore it was admitted by the authorities that the death count would always be uncertain because no one knew for sure about people who were homeless and off the official records of the greatest nation in the world. London has a more extensive scheme of social services, yet someone who could remind you of Whitney Houston had slipped through its net.

You can dispute the method of this film, and even its integrity, but there is no escaping the true, casual terror in the situation that prompted it. It will take more than three years for that atmosphere to wear away.