Near this North London shopping centre in 2006 a body was found in a bedsit by officials seeking to repossess the place because the rent had not been paid for quite some time. The occupant had been reduced to a skeleton, such was the advanced state of decomposition, indicating they had been dead for some years, and as the forensic team set to work they managed to discover she had died around Christmas 2003, making it three years she had been lying there. Then the hunt was on to trace anyone who knew her, to better understand how thirtysomething Joyce Carol Vincent could have slipped away for so long...
Although for all director Carol Morley's efforts, the fact remained Joyce was pretty much an enigma, at least from what we were able to ascertain from this documentary. Partly that was down to design (Morley wanted to keep some details private) and circumstances (the family refused to be interviewed for the film), but also because the subject was a mystery, and difficult to pin down completely no matter how far Morley was able to delve into her life. Nevertheless, there was a sense that perhaps she was being unnecessarily mysterious in places, and the way she used reconstructions featuring actress Zawe Ashton acting out possible scenarios wasn't entirely satisfactory.
That said, with so little evidence or testimony that Joyce left behind the director had little choice but to use those reconstructions to fill out what no camera had captured, and the tone was always immensely respectful throughout. She interviewed a selection of friends Joyce had drifted away from as she put the pieces of her life's jigsaw puzzle together, though peculiarly she tended to keep their connections to Joyce rather oblique unless they would actually state in the course of discussion who they were; in a story which had enough questions this was perhaps in need of more clarity, though this did keep the focus on the deceased, which was the point of the enterprise.
What Morley was able to uncover about Joyce began with a portrait of a likeable, attractive young woman who worked in professional, white collar jobs and was much appreciated by all those around her, except that she was wont to keep her secrets from them. You could ask, well, how often do you really open up about your background in depth to your acquaintances, so it was little surprise they didn't know the whole story about her, except that even her boyfriend Martin, who described her as the love of his life, was not wholly sure about what Joyce really got up to when he wasn't around, hence she was drifting in and out of his life and he didn't know about those periods of absence.
There were other boyfriends, including one who is interviewed, but it was those who were not that became a concern, as Morley found out Joyce had spent time in a refuge for battered women: one, maybe more, of those partners had been abusive, which may be why she was so secretive and peripatetic in moving around London. You could argue we find out as much about the woman as we needed to - that she had dreams of making a better life, as many people do, that she was estranged from her family, that she let the people who appreciated her go from her life and made no efforts to keep in touch except on the odd, possibly desperate occasion, but the film highlighted that you're never going to know the full story about anyone, no matter how open they are. Joyce Carol Vincent left mysteries behind, but mostly what you were left with was a sadness that she could have disappeared so utterly, neglected for so long. The Christmas presents found next to her body summed it up: we don't know who they were for, but their existence was truly poignant. Music by Barry Adamson.