LFF 2011: DREAMS OF A LIFE review

It’s interesting to note that two of the most feted films at this year’s LFF are haunting studies of urban numbness; first the operatic despair of SHAME and now DREAMS OF A LIFE, an even more disturbing film on account of it being, you know, real life and everything.

While I have huge respect for the craft of documentary film-making, let’s face it: most of them live or die on the strength of their subject matter, and DREAMS OF A LIFE first and foremost has an incredible story to tell. It’s perhaps the most remarkable subject matter for a documentary since MAN ON WIRE, yet while that film showcased humanity at its best and most hopeful, DREAMS OF A LIFE is an exploration of an occasion where it comprehensively failed.

In 2003, the body of 38-year-old Joyce Carruthers was discovered in a tiny studio flat overlooking Wood Green shopping centre by members of the council chasing thousands of pounds of owed rent. After doing tests on her body it was ascertained that Joyce had been dead for nearly three years.

So far, so heartbreaking. But the cruel twist in this story is that Joyce wasn’t a loner, or a societal outcast – she was extremely attractive and outgoing, with an active social life and many friends all over London, not to mention four sisters who were alive and well. DREAMS OF A LIFE interviews many of her colleagues, associates and ex-boyfriends, while also dramatising many of the defining moments in her life in an attempt to make sense of her enigmatic, almost contradictory personality, and to explore why she was able to slip off the societal radar so easily.

The case of Joyce Carruthers would seem to suggest a total failure of humanity on a par with the Kitty Genovese incident, where a woman was murdered in broad daylight in front of 27 witnesses. But director Carol Morley seems uninterested in pointing fingers and decrying humanity, instead focusing on providing a comprehensive portrait of Joyce as a person. From the beginning, it’s noted that she was a ‘social chameleon’ – changing up friendship groups and moving to different areas of London regularly – and as the film progresses, it is increasingly hinted at that Joyce had serious issues with trust and commitment, and in the end actively wanted to withdraw herself from everyone. I’m not sure which is the most disturbing – that her friends forgot about her or that she felt alienated enough from them to want to disappear. For those of us who live in big metropolitan cities, the case of Joyce would appear to be a chilling confirmation of our darkest fears regarding our ultimate insignificance.

However, all our evidence on this comes from the people interviewed; these are people who are obviously harboring a significant amount of guilt about the circumstances in which Joyce died, and there’s always the lingering thought that they may be colouring their perceptions of her in order to assuage their own culpability.

It’s in these interviews with the people that knew her that DREAMS OF A LIFE is at its most riveting. There’s an interesting cast of characters who line up to talk about her, though none are more interesting than her two serious ex-boyfriends: the first, a nebbish, white, balding and incredibly good-natured man who was also her longest and closest friend; and the second, a slick, black, dreadlocked music manager who introduced her to Isaac Hayes and Nelson Mandela. The stark contrast between them only reinforces the view of Joyce as a woman who enjoyed trying to ingratiate into vastly different social groups, while committing to none of them.

The interviews are presented as if the interviewees have just walked in off the street – we see them learn new revelations about Joyce’s life at the same time that we learn them. The inter-cutting between the talking heads is skillfully done – there’s a great sequence where the interviewees are all unexpectedly played a tape of her voice that is totally gripping.

I was less convinced about the dramatised aspects while I was watching it, which occasionally seemed needlessly elaborate (the dramatised Joyce watching documentary footage of her real life friends discussing her on her bedsit TV). However, Zawe Ashton gives a good performance as Joyce, and some of the moments are extremely effective – a scene where Joyce sings the entirety of Carolyn Crawford’s ‘My Smile is Just a Frown’ into her hairbrush seemed self-indulgent at first, then tragic in retrospect, and ultimately has haunted me for days afterwards.

It’s become one of the most-talked about films of the festival, and with good reason: it’s an exceptionally powerful and thought-provoking work. The reaction has led to distributors bringing the release date forward to Christmas, which is certainly an interesting scheduling choice, if an appropriate one. Forget THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO – this is the real feel bad movie of Christmas.

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