Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 10, 2012 6:14 pm 
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Documentary searches details of a forgotten life, finds few answers

"WOMAN DEAD IN FLAT FOR THREE YEARS" blares the tabloid headine of the news story. "Horror. . . Joyce's lonely bedsit," reads the caption of the accompanying photo of a brickwalled outer walkway and a door. It's a haunting, disturbing story. Carol Morley, an art school graduate and filmmaker, saw it in London's The Sun newspaper in 2006 and decided she had to make a movie. The dead woman's name was Joyce Vincent. She was 38. She had been born and lived all her life in London. Of Indian and West Indian parents, she had been bright, pretty, catnip for men, pleasant, much liked by friends and associates, with a talent for singing. How did she die alone, friendless, forgotten? There had been a succession of boyfriends and jobs. She had died lying on a sofa surrounded by wrapped Christmas presents. When she was found three years later her body was so largely just skeleton that it was hard to identify positively. The TV and heating were still on in the flat. A long effort to track down Joyce's friends and raise the money made Mosley's project take five years. Morley's title, Dreams of a Life, refers to the fact that she relies heavily on the increasingly popular documentary gimmick of "reenactments," here largely just wordless scenes to convey a sense of how Joyce looked, more or less, and things she did. Morley's film is clearly a labor of love, even obsession, but despite the over-and-overing of memories, significant gaps remain in her reconstruction, starting with the fact that no family members are ever heard from. Some person or persons seem to have made Joyce go into seclusion, but they weren't tracked down. Less music and acting and more tough reportage might have made a better, more informative film. But it's nonetheless a haunting story.

Some exclaim that it's mysterious how a pretty and once popular woman could disappear from sight in the "communication age," but the grim truth is how easy it is. Big modern cities often contain pockets of isolation and anomie; Joyce seems to have moved into one when she went, or was sent, to the soulless housing complex above Wood Green Shopping City in north London, perhaps led by shame to become incommunicado when she did so. According to the story in The Sun, which Morley might have paid more attention to in her film, "Joyce's family, including her sisters, told the inquest that the flat was a woman's refuge where she had lived after becoming a victim of domestic violence." Neighbors "keep themselves to themselves in this block," the building's caretaker told the Sun reporter.

The newspaper story also explains why the death went unnoticed for three years. Nearest neighbors noticed a bad smell but chose to ignore it. Rent due the Metropolitan Housing Trust "was partly covered by housing benefit," hence "bailiffs were called when Joyce fell badly behind with the rent" only after the three years. It was they who broke in and discovered the remains. This may say more about this part of London and the shortcomings of the women's refuge and housing benefit programs than about Joyce Vincent. At least one interviewee, the most forthcoming, a man named Martin who had been involved with Joyce in the Eighties and then years later let her stay for six months when she was going through hard times, saw signs of her decline. He learned she went from a responsible accounting job in her twenties to cleaning houses in her thirties and sometimes was not working at all. But those who can explain how this decline happened are not heard from. Why didn't Martin, or any of Joyce's other past friends, keep in touch with her?

We hear plenty from the people Morley tracked down via adverts and a notice on a cab, who referred her to others. Through Martin she met Kirk, and then Alastair, two other key men in Joyce's life, though Morley doesn't introduce them, and we have to figure out who they are from what they say. She also periodically suggests a detective story by showing her wall of Post-It notes with dates and jobs or places or people in Joyce's life but many question marks remaining.

The cause of death was impossible to determine. Joyce's time in a women's refuge meant suicide or murder might be possible. But a number of hospital admissions, apparently due to respiratory trouble, also make natural causes quite possible.

The actors, who are fine, though restricted mostly to miming their scenes (with one or two singing bits) recreate moments from Joyce's childhood and adult life. It emerges that she was virtually abandoned by her father (played in simulations by Cornell S. John) after her mother died while she was very young, and she might have been abused as a child. Her early years seem to have left lifelong scars that she concealed by putting on a front of good cheer and friendliness and taking advantage of her good looks. But the good looks led to men of a certain sort preying on her, some think. And while she went to a good school when young, she may not have had as much education as she pretended or the qualifications for better jobs she dreamed of. Kirk, a musician who was also Joyce's landlord and roomate for a while, took her to a recording studio once for an audition but says (without explaining why) that despite her good voice, a singing career was clearly not in the cards for her. We get the image of a life of dreams, indeed.

Morley interviews Alistair, a former tour manager for the soul singer Betty Wright, who was Joyce's live-in boyfriend in a two-year relationship that was far from smooth sailing.

But it seems to have been years since any of the interviewees were close to Joyce. And they admit that however pleasant and charming she was, she was also not forthcoming, so even when they knew her she was something of a blank. Beautiful, seemingly promising, a people pleaser, but despite good looks and a nice singing voice, not such an interesting person after all. Alas. Perhaps that is how they could let her fade so easily out of their lives.

Joyce's history reminds me what the priest who'd heard confession for thirty years told André Malraux he'd learned: that most people are less happy than they appear. Joyce Vincent was always hiding even in plain sight, and then she hid for real. This film is more notable for the haunting story in The Sun: a woman, once popular and beautiful, not that old, dying alone, forgotten, unknown, ignored, left to decompose for three years. This image, bolstered by the pictures of Alex Luka-Cain as the young Joyce and Zawe Ashton as the beautiful grown woman, is why Peter Bradshow of The Guardian, who reviewed this film after its London Film Festival debut Oct. 16, 2011, has written that "it lingered persistently in my mind, and it lingers still."

Carol Morley's film provides much material for wistfulness and disturbed dreams, but might have provided more answers. However a Variety review (by Charles Gant) points out that this third film by Morley is a leap forward in complexity and tech aspects. Much attention has gone into music and sound editing, and the film editing is by Lynda Hall, who has extensive documentary experience and since has worked on The Imposter.

Charles Gant of Variety points out that this third film by Morley is a leap forward for her in complecity and tech aspects. Much attention has gone into music and sound editing, and the film editing is by Lynda Hall, who has extensive documentary experience and has since worked on The Imposter.

The film debuted 16 Oct. 2011 in the London Film Festival and was released theatrically 16 Dec. 2011 in the UK and 3 Aug. 2012 in the US. Strand Releasing releases this film for the US on DVD December 11, 2012. It would be a very Dickensian Christmas present.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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