British helmer Carol Morley delivers her most assured work to date with "Dreams of a Life," exploring the mystery of a 38-year-old Londoner whose body was discovered decomposing in her apartment more than two years after her death.

British helmer Carol Morley delivers her most assured work to date with “Dreams of a Life,” exploring the mystery of a 38-year-old Londoner whose body was discovered decomposing in her apartment more than two years after her death. Mixing talking-head interviews with elaborate reconstructions of Joyce Vincent’s life, the third-time director can’t miss with a riveting tale of a onetime vivacious personality, described by those who knew her as “stunning,” “lovely,” and “very well liked,” but who nevertheless died alone, friendless and seemingly missed by nobody. Further fest action is certain, but revenue across all platforms looks modest.

Having fearlessly exposed her own troubled youth in her 50-minute docu debut, “The Alcohol Years,” Morley is well equipped to probe the past of Vincent, eliciting reminiscences from former friends, roommates, colleagues and lovers, but not Vincent’s four sisters, who declined to participate. Working in the film’s favor is the fact that Vincent emerges not as the tragic misfit suggested by her death, but as a complex and likable personality whose mysteries are never wholly penetrated.

Vincent was found in her apartment in Wood Green, North London, in 2006, her skeletal body slumped on the sofa and her television still on; evidence pointed to a death by natural causes in December 2003. Investigations by police and local newspapers gleaned few facts about her, but an intrigued Morley decided to probe further, placing ads urging friends of the deceased woman to get in touch. She was eventually able to chart her subject’s life story: Vincent was well brought up in a strict Afro-Caribbean family in London, popular but underachieving at school, and then found success in office jobs while aspiring to be a singer.

With no narration and little explanation from the filmmaker about her investigation (beyond glimpses of a whiteboard on which she sketches out Vincent’s connections and movements), much of the detailed research that presumably underpins specific moments of reconstruction remains undisclosed. Viewers will have to accept on faith that Morley has based it all on witness statements. Either way, Zawe Ashton (“Blitz”) delivers a compellingly believable performance as the chameleon-like subject.

Docu benefits from a tone more sensitive than prurient. Drawbacks include some superfluous reconstructions of banal incidents and a repetitive curtain-raiser with too many interviewees making the same obvious points about decomposition odors, unpaid utility bills, neighbors, absent siblings and negligent authorities.

“Dreams of a Life” reps a big step forward from Morley’s under-realized sophomore effort, “Edge,” a scripted feature. But her experiences with both fiction and nonfiction are evidently now coming together in a creatively successful hybrid that earns comparisons with recent docu hits such as “The Arbor” and “Catfish.”

Dreams of a Life

Ireland-U.K.

Production

A Dogwoof release of a Film4 and U.K. Film Council presentation, in association with Shoot for the Moon, with the participation of Irish Film Board, of a Cannon and Morley production with Soho Moon Pictures. (International sales: Entertainment One Films Canada, Toronto.) Produced by Cairo Cannon, James Mitchell. Executive producers, Katherine Butler, Tabitha Jackson, Alan Maher, Paul McGowan, Andre Singer. Co-producer, Rachel Lysaght. Directed, written by Carol Morley.

Crew

Camera (color), Mary Farbrother, Lynda Hall; editor, Chris Wyatt; music, Barry Adamson; music supervisor, Connie Farr; production designer, Chris Richmond; art directors, Adam A. Makin, Emma Lowney; set decorator, Katya Guy; costume designer, Leonie Prendergast; supervising sound editor, Christopher Wilson; re-recording mixer, Ken Galvin; visual effects supervisor, Jonathan Privett; associate producer, Danielle Ryan; assistant director, Mick Pantaleo; casting, Robert Sterne. Reviewed at London Film Festival (New British Cinema), Oct. 16, 2011. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Zawe Ashton, Alix Luka-Cain, Naleem Bakshi, Cornell S. John, Martin Likster, Alistair Abrahams, Alton Edwards, Kim Bacon, Daniel Roberts, John Ioannou, Michael Davies, William Barthorpe, Kirk Thorne, Catherine Clarke, Lynne Featherstone, Mandy Allen, Prue Almond, Alison Campsie, Jerome Everette, David Gibbs, Kyle Thorne.

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