Review: Dreams of a Life

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Yesterday, I saw a documentary film called Dreams of a Life [watch the trailer here], starring a mesmerizing Zawe Ashton. Part documentary, part reenactment, it tells the story of Joyce Vincent, an English woman who died December 2003 surrounded by Christmas presents she was wrapping with the television on and whose body wasn’t discovered until 2006 when officials came to repossess the flat where she lay after the banking account automatically paying her bills finally ran out of money. Nothing was known about Joyce when she was discovered other than her name, not even a photo in the paper, and so the filmmaker sought out her friends and family through ads. Many began to call inquiring if it was “their Joyce” whom she was asking about.

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The film examines “how did this happen?” through reenactments and interviews with Joyce’s friends, boyfriends and coworkers. Her family declined to be interviewed on camera, only giving a statement revealed in the behind the scenes documentary saying her estrangement was as much of a mystery to them as it was for the filmmaker (and my only real complaint being there were things in the behind the scenes documentary which should have been in the film).

Joyce Vincent was, through recollections, a popular, bubbly, poised woman whose beauty was noted by everyone interviewed. Any negativity is minimal, the worst being she tended to be lazy and didn’t like to clean. She was popular with men and women, with men wanting to date her and one friend saying she wanted to be her. For all intents and purposes, something like this should not have happened to someone like her.

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Interviews with her friends prove to be baffling- they are quick to talk about her beauty and clothing and her love of singing and music, but they also admit to knowing very little of her life. As a friend states, “she had no past.” Joyce often didn’t want to talk of herself, which included doting sisters with whom she had become estranged, and she tended to become completely engrossed in her partners’ lives. Some knew of a violent relationship near the end of her life, and that she fled to a shelter, but nearly all seemed surprised to discover she had been living in a bedsit at the time of her death, as opposed to a middle class home. She lived in the present while hiding and lying about her private life, and growing more and more isolated as she entered her thirties. Even as her friends’ eyes shine bright with amusement and love when discussing her, the blankness and shock when the filmmaker talks about her private life is startling. Joyce Vincent, to even her friends, was an enigma.

The filmmaker makes the choice to only depict Joyce in reenactments, leaving photos to blurry glimpses. An all too brief audio file of her speaking jolts her friends when played, some becoming emotional, some laughing, some stunned, and one debating the authenticity of the file. The moment is an engrossing one, and along with the often laughing tales and affectionate smiles, show that Joyce was loved, which makes her end even more troubling.

Those expecting a resolution in the documentary are sure to be disappointed- the only conclusion is Joyce Vincent is gone, she continues to be a mystery, and her secrets and truth died with her. There are no answers, just more questions.

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Dreams of a Life is a daunting, tragic document of the fragility of relationships, whether they be romantic, friendship or familial, self-isolation, the loneliness of illness and death, and how well do we really know and care for the people we love. The final shot in the film is haunting, and that, along with the film will likely stay with me for a while. It left me feeling different, and not in a good way. This is a film which will make you reexamine your connections with those you love and just how fragile life and our relationships can really be.

Dreams of a Life is available to rent on [Netflix] and to watch instantly on [Hulu Plus].

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