Film releases: December 16

Dreams of a Life is more like a nightmare really: this year’s nightmare before Christmas. The word “life”, too, might go before the Trade Descriptions Tribunal. Carol Morley’s spellbinding documentary is largely about death. It was once a famous newspaper story. In 2006 the skeleton of Joyce Vincent, a 38-year-old who had had friends, relatives, attractive Indian-Caribbean looks and a goodtime past of clubbing and singing, was found in a north London flat. She had been dead for more than two years. Newly wrapped Christmas presents were at her side. The stains on the sofa and floor were her dissolved body. The television was still on after 25 months.

It was tabloid heaven. How could the dead woman have remained undiscovered all that time? Did no one try to call her? Had friends and family lost contact – or interest? In that early millennial dawn, the redtop newspapers could deliver morbid prurience and large-letter shock to the reading classes while going on about the Great Urban Paradox: all these people gathered together in a city with no connectedness.

Morley recognises that this tragedy is surrounded by potential triteness. Yet her film is never trite – or only once, in the borderline-naff “reconstruction” of the day officials broke in to find Vincent’s remains. Vincent’s life is documentarised as far as knowledge allows, leaving lacunae that Morley fills with a kind of wish-fulfilment amplification of what appeared to be Vincent’s hopes, gifts, ambitions. These are the “dreams of a life”. They include a wonderful sequence in which actress Zawe Ashton, who represents Joyce in the film’s discreet dramatised tableaux, sings along, alone in a room, to Carolyn Crawford’s “My Smile is Just a Frown, Turned Upside Down”.

Someone says of Vincent’s mysterious death “Another JFK, all the way.” But it isn’t just the mystery that mesmerises, it is the misery or the apprehension of it: the sense of some untold, secret pain that had been Vincent’s constant companion. Morley tracked down half a dozen of her subject’s former friends (which is half a dozen more than the tabloids had managed), including a musician/landlord who had courted her, and an English boyfriend with a nervous chuckle, a compulsive devotion to commonplaces and a last, touching moment of tearful breakdown. It’s perhaps a weakness – but only perhaps – that the director respected the wishes of Vincent’s sisters and an ex-fiancé, who were also contacted, not to take part in the film.

If none of these people kept in touch with Vincent, that was partly because Vincent flitted from address to address, closing off her past as surely as she, or someone, finally closed off her future. (The lack of a corpse meant the cause of death could never be determined.) The details accumulate and fascinate, including a near-miss recording career and a meeting with Nelson Mandela. Carol Morley has given Joyce Vincent, in a bizarre, compelling, even loving way, a second life.

A new species of film has been enrolled in the official register of genres. It’s called Retro-Mod Malarkey (RMM for short). You set up a large quantity of period bric-a-bric and pelt it with modernism; or vice versa. The anachronism police are paid to look the other way. Or then again, perhaps anachronism is the whole point.

RMM movies are interchangeable. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, like director Guy Ritchie’s first Baker Street detective romp, stars Robert Downey, Jr, clipping his stateside vowels as Holmes, and Jude Law taking Dr Watson at a novel intellectual clip. (“You’re not as slow-witted as I was told,” says Jared Harris’s Professor Moriarty.) But the core gambit is to throw a star, or star duo, into a costumed world made funky with colloquialism, street smarts and gizmos from the future.

As Holmes and Watson gad about the Continent from London to Paris to Switzerland, looking to stop a complicated (or frankly incomprehensible) world war conspiracy, the inalienable truth gathers critical mass: you could put Will Smith in this and call it Wild Wild West Europe or Nicolas Cage and call it International Treasure. What you can’t call it is anything to do with Arthur Conan Doyle, since the Holmes stories weren’t about travelogue locations, hyperkinetic action scenes, fantastical-futuristic weaponry or feistily sexy tomboys (Noomi Dragon Tattoo Rapace) taken along for the ride.

But RMM movies cannot be collectively condemned. What killjoy would outlaw freedoms with time, space, history or authorship? We’d lose Blazing Saddles, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and every avant-garde opera production of the past 20 years. Millions loved the first Ritchie Holmes. This one is the same but different. I hated a lot of it while feeling a ghastly, outmanoeuvred admiration for the way Downey is making Holmes his own – a flip, loquacious dandy with trendy stubble, fight scars and one-liners – even while we of the Conan Doyle Fan Club wish, outnumberedly, that he wouldn’t.

Wreckers is a first feature from British writer-director D.R. Hood. It’s a village love story with suspense drama trimmings, in the key of weird-flat. It’s weird, but also a little flat. Young homemakers Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch (his Estuary accent sometimes sounding as incongruous as Downey’s cut-glass English) take in the latter’s soldier brother, recuperating from Afghanistan. It’s a cold-comfort furlough. The revelations multiply: instability, infidelity, infertility, a possible bygone episode of family incest. The structure rambles. The plot sometimes bewitches, sometimes bemuses. The cast works valiantly to keep us caring.

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