'That couldn't be someone's legacy'


Carol Morley’s obsession with a young woman’s death has led to a powerful film, writes SINEAD GLEESON

IN 2006, FILM-MAKER Carol Morley was on a London tube when she picked up a newspaper. The headline concerned a young woman, Joyce Vincent, who had died alone in her flat, but wasn’t discovered for three years. Morley felt what most of us would feel – horror, sadness, incomprehension – and was determined to find out more.

The article contained few details and no photograph, but the story consumed Morley, who decided to make a film called Dreams of a Life about Joyce.

With scant information, the first stop was the internet, which was both helpful and infuriating. “I discovered people discussing the story online, speculating that she was a couch potato or a ‘miserable bitch’. It made me so angry – that couldn’t be someone’s legacy.”

Morley met the area’s MP and attempted to obtain information from local authorities. She began her search by placing ads in newspapers and on the sides of cabs. Several people got in touch, but with the same opening gambit – that the woman Morley described, who died alone and lay undiscovered for years, couldn’t be the same person.

Those who knew her told Morley that they assumed she had left them all behind and moved on to better things. The more Morley delved, the more connections she found to her own life. She and Joyce were almost the same age and had lived on the same street. Both had lost a parent at a young age. More people came forward to say they knew her, including Martin, an ex-boyfriend, who features heavily in the film. Another boyfriend featured is music producer Alistair Abrahams, who introduced her to Jimmy Cliff, Gil Scott Heron and Isaac Hayes.

What comes across is that here was a beautiful, smart, kind woman, with a great job and countless friends – how did no one notice she was gone? “It’s ironic,” says Morley. “People say that she lit up a room, that she was unforgettable. She was dynamic and this, conversely, seemed to contribute to her being forgotten. Everyone thought she was off having a better life than them.”

When Joyce’s body was found only a skeleton remained – making identification difficult. The cause of death is unknown, but what becomes clear is that Joyce’s life was unsettled and contributed to her falling off the radar. She moved between jobs, boyfriends and flats in an endless nomadic trek.

Her family had lost touch with her and Morley tracked them down while researching the film.

“They didn’t want to be involved and I respect that. We screened it for them and my aim was always to make a film of consent, and to have people involved who wanted to be involved. I think this is a tragic case of someone who isolated themselves and cut themselves off. She stopped communicating with her family, and we don’t know why.”

Morley discovered that, at one point, Joyce lived in a women’s refuge after a partner subjected her to domestic violence. Towards the end, she was working as a cleaner. “People said she had immense pride and she wasn’t where she wanted to be in life. A lot of people identify with that. Often, we don’t reveal how we’re really feeling,” says Morley, “but I think we have a personal responsibility to tell others how we feel, especially if we’re isolated.”

Morley’s father died when she was 11, through suicide, and she finds something relatable in that tragedy to this story. “I feel you can’t save someone if they don’t reach out. Not that Joyce needed saving, but we have every right as an adult to cut ourselves off from the world – regardless of how those around us might feel.”

A huge amount of research went into the film, and Morley admits that it took over her life for five years. Partial funding came from the Irish Film Board, who Morley says were her “saving grace”. Dreams of a Life was released in the UK before Christmas and provoked a huge reaction. “People watch it, but it makes them think about their own lives. One person told me they’ve started inviting friends around again after they realised that had kept others out of their private space. It seems to raise questions around isolation and how we share our difficulties. So maybe now we can stop passing people by or assuming everyone is okay.”

When Joyce’s remains were found, she was surrounded by wrapped Christmas presents, whose recipients we never discover. It’s a tragic detail, but Morley sees it as a sign of hope; Joyce was ready to re-engage with the world. Her exhaustive research also turned up footage of Joyce at a concert for Nelson Mandela – a gig that was watched on TV by millions.

“The film is called Dreams of a Lifebecause I didn’t want people to think that it was purely a work of journalism where they would find answers. It was more about evoking her life.”

Morley never knew Joyce, but has spent much time poring over the details of her short life. “I feel that she will always be with me,” she says. “She is someone I only know through other people, so she has been defined that way. But I don’t think people exaggerated about her, I think she was a genuinely lovely person. She loved poetry and music and had a real energy for life. She’s a person I would loved to have met.”

Dreams of a Lifeis currently showing at the IFI, Dublin