Report: ‘Dreams of a Life’ Q&A with director Carol Morley and actress Zawe Ashton at the IFI.

Dreams of a Life

Dreams of a Life opened in Irish cinemas on Friday, 6th January. This chilling film tells the true story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a 38 year-old woman that society tragically forgot, whose decomposing body was discovered in a north-London flat, where it had lain for three years. Dreams of a Life is an Irish co-production with the bulk of the dramatic reconstructions being shot in Dublin.

Director Carol Morley and actress Zawe Ashton, who plays Joyce Carol Vincent, were in attendance at Friday’s IFI screening and participated in a post-screening Q&A, chaired by Dearbhla Walsh, giving the audience an insight into the reality behind Dreams of a Life and the forgotten woman who died in such bleak and forsaken circumstances.

Morley came upon the tragic story in an English newspaper and ‘it struck me as very, very powerful,’ she told the audience, ‘this image of a woman the same age as me, dying alone and not being discovered and this television flickering over her. When I read it I just couldn’t let it go. It felt very profound. It wasn’t just the three years that she lay there, but also the television being on. It was the sense of these images and sounds of this television going over her. In my own life there are times of being solitary and lonely, and you often use the television as a companion. So I found that quite a powerful image.’

Morley noted how anonymous Joyce was in the article, the sum of bits of forensic evidence and misinformation. She couldn’t let it go and started to try to find out more information behind the newspaper piece. People wanted to know how she died but as Morley found herself become more involved she wanted to celebrate her life as an attractive and intelligent young woman with dreams of becoming a singer.

Morley began to take on the role of a private investigator – but rather than trying to make a film that sought to say this is Joyce – she wanted to make a film of people’s hypothesis of who Joyce was. Morley’s film is not about pointing the finger of blame but rather about giving Joyce a legacy beyond blame and ‘bringing Joyce to life in the best possible way.’

The film uses dramatic reconstructions as a means of breathing life into Joyce and take the documentary beyond mere facts and opinions. Morley admits that she ‘wanted to create an almost dreamlike quality and look at different aspects of her life. I feel we have a public life and a private life and an inner life and I wanted to bring that into the film.’

Zawe Ashton came to the project after Morley had seen her performing in a play  in Soho Theatre in west London for Clean Break, a company that helps rehabilitate women who are ex-offenders and at risk of offending through theatre education. Morley remembers ‘loving Zawe immediately’ when she came to audition for the role of Joyce and was able to bring out the inner life of Joyce that Morley wanted to portray. Something she does so effectively in a particularly memorable one-shot scene when she sings ‘My Smile Is Just a Frown (Turned Upside Down)’ in its entirety. For Ashton the scene is a culmination of the dreams that hadn’t come to fruition for Joyce. Morley added that the scene was important for her to create a space and almost ‘give Joyce her voice back’ and to give her ‘her moment’.

With Dreams of a Life, Morley achieves that and more in this haunting and heartbreaking tale.

Steven Galvin

Dreams of a Life continues at the IFI

For more information and discussions on the film, visit


Cinema Review: Dreams of a Life – Film of the Week

Dreams of a Life

DIR/WRI: Carol Morley • PRO: Cairo Cannon, James Mitchell • DOP: Mary Farbrother Lynda Hall • ED: Chris Wyatt • DES: Chris Richmond • CAST: Zawe Ashton, Neelam Bakshi, Lee Colley

In January 2006, the skeletal remains of 38-year old Joyce Carol Vincent were discovered in a grim bedsit in Wood Green, London. To the horror of the British public, it emerged that Joyce’s body lay decomposing in her flat for almost three years before she was discovered, with her TV still flickering eerily in the corner. Her discovery ignited a debate in Britain about the deterioration of community spirit and the disconnection of the modern world. The story also inspired director Carol Morley to embark on a project which combined straightforward documentary with dogged detective work, gathering together the fragments of Joyce’s life to create a complete portrait of this enigmatic, forgotten woman who met her death in such desolate circumstances.

Morley’s film avoids straightforward re-construction, instead opting for a more poetic hybrid approach which alternates between a conventional talking heads documentary and a poignant biopic in which Joyce is played by actress Zawe Ashton ( who you may recognise as Vod from C4’s Fresh Meat). Through interviews with the people whose lives Joyce touched in various ways, we slowly collect an impression of a vivacious but elusive personality, a charismatic beauty who seemed to lack the drive and ambition to go with her charismatic and refined manner. In fact, the film does not shy away from criticising some aspects of Joyce’s complex persona – her laziness, for example,  and her apparent inability to envisage a future for herself are remarked upon with trenchant insight by ex-boyfriends, co-workers and housemates. However, watching the way Joyce affected other people, whether negatively or positively, makes the horrible truth of her demise all the more mystifying. It is as if she simply faded out of existence or as one contributor puts it, “melted into the carpet”. Ultimately, the viewer is left with the impression that this enigmatic character was somehow doomed to a sad end – it is striking how little the majority of the contributor’s seem to truly know about her. As she advances into her 30s, we see Joyce’s vague hopes of stardom slowly fall away as grim reality starts to erode her sense of self-worth. The film’s most affecting scene shows Joyce indulging in a moment of fantasy, the frustrated performer singing into a hairbrush in her lonely bedsit before coming abruptly and painfully back to the reality of her isolation and sadness. It’s an incredibly poignant scene, sensitively staged by Morley and wonderfully played by Ashton.

Carol Morley’s film is a superb achievement – a fascinating character study as much as it is a genuinely haunting and moving story of disconnection and the complexity of human relationships. In these days of hyper-connectedness it’s difficult to imagine someone simply fading from view in this manner, and this film is a powerful reminder of the vital importance of maintaining real, human relationships. Dreams of a Life is hugely recommended – a film which will linger in your memory for a long time after you leave the cinema.

Martin Cusack

Dreams of a Life is released on 6th January 2012

Dreams of a Life – Official Website