Joyce Vincent’s body was found in a small flat over the Shopping City in Wood Green after lying dead for three years. Her skeletal remains were surrounded by the Christmas presents she’d been wrapping and the telly was still on, tuned to BBC1. It’s one of those stories you can’t help dwelling on – how awful, for someone to have been lying there all that time, while we were all buying pants and toothpaste just minutes away. So I was keen to see Carol Morley’s film, it seemed like she was as intrigued as I was by the fact that someone can just drop off the radar of life. Like most people, I assumed it must be a loner, a druggie – someone who society had been happy to let disappear.
The truth couldn’t be more different and, setting aside the question of how Joyce might have felt about her life being the subject of such scrutiny, the story – told through her friends and colleagues, is poignant and at times heartbreaking. I was a bit worried about the dramatic reconstructions, which can often be a bit naff, but here Zawe Ashton has done a terrific job of bringing spirit and warmth to the mysterious dead woman. It’s a perfectly judged performance and one that takes the film out of the realm of the usual drama-doc and into something more.
Morley did an amazing job of tracking down Joyce’s story, something her family and even the press hadn’t managed to do. Thanks to her determination, we hear from friends who knew a very different girl to the one left alone for so long, and their stories really make you wonder what can have gone so wrong in her life. We do have a fair idea of course, but there are plenty of unanswered questions – her relationship with her family, the fiance who didn’t want to be filmed, not least the authorities that forgot her. The story is fascinating and unbearably sad and it’s a testament to the skills of all involved that at the end, the blurry clip that Morley finally uncovered of Joyce with Nelson Mandela can’t help but bring a tear to your eye. As the credits play out to a soundtrack of her singing, you’re already wondering if that could happen to you, or someone you know.
Along with Into The Abyss, this is one of the films from the festival that stayed with me long after I’d left the cinema – I wandered through the shopping city today and couldn’t help looking up to the miserable flat she spent her last days in. We never really find out why she ended up there, and why she seems to have cut herself off from anyone who cared about her, and we probably never will. But thanks to Carol Morley, she won’t be forgotten again.