Through a selection of interviews with former colleagues, friends and ex-boyfriends we learn the story of Joyce Vincent; a thirtysomething single woman who died in her north London bedsit in 2003. When council officials discovered her body, three years later, the television was still on and the floor was strewn with Christmas presents, wrapped but not dispatched. Such was her state of decomposition that the cause of death was never officially recorded. Yet as the discovery made national news, the mystery- an almost cautionary tale of modern loneliness- remains to this day.
It was the newspaper article that drew Morley to make this documentary: after placing advertisements asking ‘Did You Know Joyce Vincent?’, she found that those who came forward spoke of an attractive, vivacious and popular woman. So what happened, why, and why did it take so long for anyone to notice? Most of the interviewees conclude that, regrettably (but not entirely unpredictably) Joyce had slipped through the cracks of her contacts list; the phone rarely rang, the door untouched. Although they claim that Joyce had isolated herself from her social circle(rather than the other way round), with the Wood Green Shopping Centre standing directly below her window, the terrible thought occurs that thousands of people- shoppers, strangers, maybe even friends- had simply, unwittingly, passed her by. For all her good intentions, Morley, too, seems to have overlooked the tragedy.
Part documentary, part dramatisation; reconstructing the key moments of Joyce’s life (with Zawe Ashton playing this curious role) ultimately distracts-and detracts- from the bigger picture. We follow Joyce through a promising childhood, the late ‘80s club scene and into the newspaper headline like a rather insensitive and insignificant montage. The camera pans over a timeline (well, a screen filled with Post-It notes) marked with these milestones, such as ‘Joyce moves in’, but this reduces a life, rather than develop it, into nothing more than a to-do list. This clinical and oddly depersonalised tone jars against the testimonies of her nearest and dearest. As well as bombarding the viewer with information overload, these stickers conveniently skim over the film’s flaws. For example, a glimpse at one note tells us that Joyce’s sister refused to appear on screen, but we don’t discover why. Ninety minutes of speculation – not to mention a late (and unsupported) allegation of a family secret- is an ill-fitting tribute, indeed.
For so sombre a subject matter, there’s very little you could describe as mournful. Perhaps it was Morley’s ambition to celebrate a life rather than lament a statistic, but the film struggles to find a balance. Perhaps five years is too long to replicate the rawness of grief but the conversational tone of the interviewees, often amusingly banal, doesn’t quite sound right. Their reactions are a triumph for naturalism- if not quite a feat of editing. While largely, and thankfully, free of soundbites, nothing sticks in your mind other than the declaration (of one music producer friend) that Joyce could’ve been ‘‘the new Whitney Houston’’. This assertion then segues into an anecdote about meeting Gil Scott Heron and other tales of self-promotion. Even the soundtrack is upbeat- with the holy trinity of funk, disco and ska reminding us of the passing years. Playing in the bar interior it’s acceptable; in an exterior shot of Joyce’s bedsit it’s a tad distasteful.
The only glimpses we get of the real Joyce are a snippet of a sound recording (which, when played for the first time to her friends, creates the unsettling impression of actually hearing a ghost) and a photograph of her at a Nelson Mandela conference; her looking straight into the camera providing a closing image suggests a plot twist rather than food for thought. For the rest of the time, the viewer soon associates -and confuses- Joyce with Ashton to the extent that, ironically, it becomes too easy to ignore the former entirely.
Which, as the talking heads demonstrate, is precisely the point. As no one can claim to have known the real Joyce, it seems perverse to allow an audience such a privilege. But still they try: presenting opinion as fact, making gross generalisations and, at times, contradicting each other; one ex-colleague states Joyce was shy, another outgoing- and Morley revels in this mystery as though excavating a long-lost treasure. The only interviewee to come across as insightful (or remotely modest) is on-off boyfriend Martin Lister, who speaks of Joyce with a nostalgic smile. Happy to admit she may have been too good for him, there remains a real sorrow in his heart. Indeed, the film’s most painful scene arrives at the very end: when asked what he could have done to prevent such a tragedy, he suddenly slips from speaking about Joyce in the third to the first person. It’s only one word but it cracks with a lump in the throat.
The last ten minutes mark a change of direction, a sudden break from the hagiography and one-upmanship. Now, we are told of a Joyce that didn’t light every room she entered, that didn’t turn heads in crowded bars. Such a clumsy attempt at a smear campaign feels unnecessary, unwelcome and, above all, unsavoury. Suddenly a flirt becomes much worse: a previous housemate euphemistically concedes Joyce ‘‘… was aware of the fact that she was pretty’’ and several faces that were weeping into their shopping bags are now inexplicably able to recall the little incidents that didn’t quite add up…
There are some stylistic touches that, initially, set a scene of solemnity and sympathy. For example, as Joyce/Ashton sits on the sofa and idly switches on the TV, she seems oblivious to the loved ones reminiscing to camera before her very eyes. Another fine, if poignant, moment comes as she eases herself into the prone position the coroner’s report would later mention. But such use of dramatic irony ultimately gives license to poor taste: just before we fade to black, the camera slowly follows a trail of half-wrapped presents on Joyce’s living room carpet, the dust slowly settling like snow. Even Dickens wouldn’t make Christmas this maudlin.