‘Dreams of a Life’ picks up these threads of intrigue and introduces more by building a portrait of Vincent from details which director Morley discovers by talking to her friends, family and colleagues. Morley, a Mancunian in her forties, brought us the memoir, ‘The Alcohol Years’ (2000) and still-unreleased drama ‘Edge’ (2010). Here, she plays with factual and fictional forms by combining talking heads and images relating to her research (cabs with ‘missing person’ ads on the side, footage of Vincent’s block of flats) with reconstructions for which actress Zawe Ashton plays Vincent.
Music plays a key role in the film, and there’s a spine-tingling scene in which Ashton as Vincent sings along to Carolyn Crawford’s ‘My Smile is Just a Frown (Turned Upside Down)’. It’s a moment which plays hauntingly on the film’s ideas about masks and how little we can really know about another person. Morley honours these ideas by never attempting to offer a definitive version of Vincent’s life. Her film opens up new lines of enquiry. It’s a compassionate film, which gives life to a dry news story by bringing us close to those who knew and loved Vincent. It’s distressing when Martin, her friend and one-time lover, a likeable and tender presence, breaks down on camera at the thought that if only he’d reached out to Vincent more, things could have been different.
We hear from other friends and colleagues who remember Vincent as a woman both gregarious and guarded. Together they offer a beguiling, often contradictory, oral history of a woman who appears both as exceptional and unremarkable as most lives under scrutiny. The only truly remarkable thing about Vincent was her death, and any surprise arising from the fact she was part of a hip late ’80s London music scene, once worked in the City or met Mandela at Wembley Stadium emerges only as a result of stereotypes we have in our mind of the kind of person who would meet such an end.
Morley’s film is a mirror. How much do we know ourselves? How much do others know us? It works on the ego as much as it works on our empathy. Could it ever happen to me, you wonder, while lamenting that it happened to Joyce.