While I don’t automatically hate all scripted films that have narration or documentaries that have reenactments, I don’t usually like them, either. For every documentarian like Errol Morris, who takes drama and dramatization to a whole new level (The Thin Blue Line being the prime example), there’s some poor schmo whose recreated events make his film look like an episode of I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant. But every now and then, Netflix gives you a tragic topic done right. There’s something especially haunting about the reenactments/dramatizations in the documentary Dreams of a Life, which is about a 38-year-old British woman who dies in her apartment, with the TV on, and isn’t discovered for three years, the TV still humming in the background.
The film doesn’t really try to answer why her power wasn’t shut off or eviction proceedings didn’t begin earlier, and because her body was in such an advanced state of decay when the police found it, the filmmakers can only speculate about how she might have died. What it does do is try to create a portrait of this woman, Joyce Vincent, through the friends who felt they knew her best, but realize they didn’t really know her at all (most were found through an ad placed in various newspapers, asking for anyone who knew Vincent to get in touch). Some of the people interviewed didn’t even realize she was dead.
As her ex-boyfriends, -coworkers, and even relatives try to figure out what happened, and how it could happen, scenes of her life are imagined with actors, and it works, because “the real Joyce Vincent” doesn’t really seem to exist. She was both trusting and private, giving and closed off, outgoing and fundamentally isolated. By the end of the film, you might not feel sure of who Vincent really was, but you do feel a little better about her sad end, if only because, truly known or unknown by those interviewed, she was clearly loved.