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.”