In 2006, the heavily decomposed body of a fortysomething woman was found in a bedsit behind the Shopping City complex in Wood Green, North London. This was Joyce Carol Vincent; she'd been there for three years, surrounded by half-wrapped Christmas presents, the sound of a television drowning out the growing buzz of the flies. In Dreams of a Life, the filmmaker Carol Morley uses the testimonies of Joyce's sometime friends, lovers, colleagues and acquaintances to stage a documentary reconstruction of this scene, of the body at its centre, and the circumstances by which it came to be abandoned there, confronting these individuals with the facts and revelations her own investigation into this story turned up - a concerted looking-into that Joyce's nearest and dearest (three sisters, a string of men who came and went) had tragically defaulted on. The damning detail in this picture were those presents: if Joyce had gifts ready and wrapped for other people, why wasn't anyone stopping by to bring her gifts in return?
The entire film is framed by these kinds of question marks, couched in the provisional tense; the contributors' testimonies are full of mays and mights and possiblies and maybes. Some speculate whether Joyce was murdered; others whether anything might have gone differently if they'd answered their phones when she rang, or gone to meet her in person in those last days, or taken their romantic chances with someone who, by all accounts, was a highly glamorous and attractive woman. Lines of inquiry are opened up, only to be left hanging. The coroner's verdict was inconclusive, possibly due to the extraordinary level of decomposition involved; a refuge Morley contacted in the course of her investigation insists they could not release any files even if they had any pertaining to Joyce. Had Joyce been a victim of domestic abuse? Was she a victim of child abuse before that? Nobody can say for sure, and that absence of hard and fast answers haunts the film: it's a documentary where the subject took most of her secrets to the grave with her.
For some, the speculation that takes place will doubtless be too much, if not too painful: they might, to continue the speculation, merely conclude Joyce was one of life's unknowables, and walk away. Morley at least builds up a sense of a life marked (blighted?) by drift. Joyce moved from one corner of the capital to another in her final years - not uncommon behaviour, as anyone who's been at the mercy of the London rental market will be aware, yet her peregrinations were mirrored by a tendency to slide in and out of jobs, and pass from one lover to the next, assimilating their friends as her own, and presumably losing them whenever these relationships broke up. The paradox lies in the presentation of Joyce as an eminently social creature: a keen singer who moved in musical circles, it's said she was once asked out by the drummer in Culture Club, met Gil Scott-Heron, and possibly even Nelson Mandela on the South African figurehead's visit to London in the mid-1990s, an anecdote that sets up the film's lingering closing image.
The fictional reconstructions benefit from the presence of Zawe Ashton as Joyce, a doll-like performer the director can dress up and allow the viewer to project onto: is she lonely, or just insistently alone? Morley gives her a nightclub musical number, as though she were the heroine of a latter-day film noir, but she also shows Joyce breaking down in tears, and applying lotion to her chafed feet once they're out of the high heels, moments of intimacy that could also be read as consequences of a particular lifestyle, trying to live out a dream in the big city. Morley's Joyce is often happy, but she rarely seems entirely comfortable: maybe this is why she felt a compulsion to keep moving, up until the moment she could move no more. (The film makes amateur psychologists of us all: director, interviewees, audience.)
Still, the most heartbreaking presence here might be Martin Lister, Joyce's sometime boyfriend: clearly just the nicest guy, a bedrock for the film's absent subject - it was to him Joyce turned whenever she needed help moving, a sofa to crash on - he nevertheless struggles to comprehend why it was he remained locked out of an important part of this woman's life. Was one of the presents intended for him? Was Joyce beyond all help? If so, then why does everyone on screen look and sound as if they got here too late? Dreams of a Life deals in questions, rather than definitive answers, but Morley - like an Errol Morris capable of piercing emotion - offers something compelling and provocative in laying out the scattered facts of an elusive, finally disintegrated life, and trying to make connections between them in a way Joyce Vincent herself may or might have struggled to. The sad truth about this case: we'll never know.
Dreams of a Life opens in selected cinemas from Friday.