The Beginner’s Guide: Carol Morley, Director & Writer

Beginner's Guide: Carol Morley, Director & Writer
Carol Morley - source: Alchetron

Born in Stockport, UK with the dream of becoming a singer in the next big band (after The Beatles), Carol Morley is an unusual filmmaker. A career spanning from 2000 up until today, Morley has encompassed documentary, auto-biography, drama and shorts into her resume.

Morley is probably best known for her drama-doc Dreams of a Life, the disturbing story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a young woman who had been dead in her London flat for three years before being found. Though a fantastic documentary, and one which stays with the viewer long after the closing credits, Morley’s films are all fascinating to watch in very unique ways. She has directed four features to date, The Alcohol Years (2000), Edge (2010), Dreams of a Life (2011) and The Falling (2014) – as well as a number of shorts.

In 1993, after having moved to London from Manchester following a battle with alcohol in her early teens, Morley graduated from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design with a Bachelors in Fine Arts. She had created several films during that time including: I’m Not Here (based around boredom and shop assistants), The Week Elvis Died (featuring Tony Blackburn) and had also begun work on her debut feature film – The Alcohol Years.

The Alcohol Years (2000)

The Alcohol Years was made during Morley’s time at Saint Martins, and cemented her working relationship with Cairo Cannon, who went on to produce the vast majority of Morley’s films. It’s an exploration of Morley’s teenage years, the vast majority of which she spent drinking in and around Manchester’s punk scene. It’s a  film that Morley describes as a ‘poetic revival’ of the early 1980s and her life in Manchester during that time.

Having left Manchester 12 years prior to making the film, Carol Morley was subsequently out of touch with the vast majority of the people she knew there. She placed an ad in a local newspaper, reading the following:

‘Carol Morley Film Project. Please contact me if you knew me between the years of 1982 and 1987′. 

Unorthodox, maybe, but it had the desired effect.

Beginner's Guide: Carol Morley, Director & Writer
The Alcohol Years (2000) – source: Camp Films

What becomes clear from Morley’s conversations with the contributors was that she was a character to all of them, in varying degrees. We never see Carol Morley, nor hear her voice throughout the film. The portrait of teenage Morley is built solely upon the words of other people – conjuring up an image of a person we never get to interact with. This is not dissimilar to Morley’s later work, Dreams of a Life, yet with one significant difference. Morley is behind the camera, and her creative choices within The Alcohol Years allows her voice to be heard. We can never forget that she is behind the camera as her chosen interviewees discuss her frivolity, sexuality and alcoholism.

There is a strange cultural phenomenon about female sexuality and promiscuousness –  and The Alcohol Years perfectly captures it. The men she interviews are either proud to have not slept with her, reveal their annoyance that they did or express a deep sadness that she was sexually active with a significant number of men during those years. Their objectification of young Carol Morley, and the Morley behind the camera, is telling of their attitudes towards her autonomy and ‘promiscuousness’. At one point, one interviewee states that Morley was so disliked due to her insistence on behaving like a man (i.e. having lots of sex with different people). Though they may be discussing 1980s Manchester, it is clear that many of them still harbor deep resentments for Carol Morley and the way they feel she behaved.

Though funny and quirky, The Alcohol Years is a deeply personal film which uncovers a lot of uncomfortable truths – both for Morley’s interviewees and herself. Though the film presents an experience so unique to the director, it is also entirely universal. The authenticity and realness feels relatable to audiences, despite the personal subject matter.

The Alcohol Years may be low budget and low profile, but Morley’s manipulation of sound, camera and editing was an early indication of her directing talent. In the next 10 years between The Alcohol Years and her next film Edge, Morley wrote, directed and produced several short films. These include Everyday Something (2002), The Madness of Dance (2006) and Stalin: My Neighbor (2004). In each of them, Carol Morley pushes her own directorial boundaries and refines her style as a filmmaker.

Edge (2010)

In the depths of winter, in the wind and snow,  a group of strangers spend several days at the mysterious Cliff Edge Hotel. In a setting reminiscent oDavid Lynch’s Twin Peaks or Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Edge could quite easily have become a familiar horror flick – six strangers, all with varying issues, staying in a secluded hotel with no phone lines or mobile reception. In Carol Morley’s hands, however, Edge’s real scares are within the strangers themselves. It is a film which explores what tugs at us as human beings, and how we can use our connections with others to recover.

Beginner's Guide: Carol Morley, Director & Writer
Edge (2010) – source: Dogwoof

The ensemble cast of Edge work phenomenally with the sparse script. The vast majority of feelings and thoughts go unspoken, and the meaning falls into the gaps between the words. Maxine Peak is superb as Ellen – a woman plagued with guilt about the death of a friend. Equally, Joe Dempsie and Nichola Burley are both excellent as two people carrying so much trauma with them, but are unable to speak about it. It is, however, the scenes between Agata and Wendy (Anna Wendzikowska and Marjorie Yates) which walk that wonderful line between comedy and utter despair. It is, at times, laugh-out-loud funny due the circumstances these characters find themselves in.

Edge speaks volumes about the connections we have with one another, and how genuine human understanding can sometimes save us. This is a theme which Carol Morley’s next feature, Dreams of a Life, explores – though main difference in the tragedy of Dreams being a true story.

Dreams of a Life (2011)

The story of Joyce Carol Vincent is a heartbreaking one. The body of a young woman, aged 38, was found in a North London flat – three whole years after her death. The body was so decomposed, forensics could not even tell who it was much less how she had died. It was only through dental records that the identity of the body was revealed. She was found not by friends or family, but the local authorities who had broken in following an unpaid bill. 

Beginner's Guide: Carol Morley, Director & Writer
Dreams of a Life (2011) – source: Dogwoof

When Morley heard about the discovery in a British tabloid paper, a small story tucked away from the front page, she knew that she had to tell Joyce’s story. She explained that it was the image of Joyce’s television set (still on after three years) flickering over her body, that drew her to the story. Carol Morley was quoted in an 2011 article for Telegraph UK saying, “When you are on your own, you watch TV to connect to the world so you don’t feel completely isolated. But you are”. 

The film positions itself between a drama and a documentary, with imagined scenes from Joyce’s life played out by Zawe Ashton. These scripted reconstructions are intercut with interviews from people in Joyce’s life. Slowly, and deliberately, we begin to see a picture of Joyce Vincent forming. A sociable, friendly person yet someone who could not be tied down. Someone who was, perhaps, scared of commitment. She never held a job down for very long, was an acquaintance of many but a best friend of barely anyone. Her family life is touched upon, the stories confusing and upsetting. The questions we are burning to know are how and why? Morley shows us Joyce as relatable, like any of us and ultimately, we need to know that this will not happen to us – that we won’t be forgotten like Joyce. Someone will come looking for us.

What emerged for Carol Morley was a life that had been previously untapped. She became the first point of call for those with information about Joyce, acting almost as a private detective. She discovered astonishing similarities between her own life and Joyce’s. They had even once lived on the same street.

This interconnected-ness is one of the most tender things about Dreams of a Life. The film is gut-wrenchingly sad but it reveals the smallness of our world and the importance of our humanity with others. It is wonderfully edited, bouncing between drama and interviews seamlessly. We never get the answers that we want, but ultimately that isn’t what Dream of a Life is reaching for. Probably Carol Morley’s best known film, and deservedly so.

The Falling (2014)

Ethereal, enchanting and mysterious are three words which come to mind after a first watch of The Falling. A mesmerizing watch, The Falling tells a twisted coming of age story centering around Lydia ‘Lamb’ Lamont (Maisie Williams) after the sudden death of her best friend, Abbie Mortimer (Florence Pugh). Lydia’s grief, sexuality and loss of childhood is explored as herself and many of her friends succumb to a mystery fainting illness.

Beginner's Guide: Carol Morley, Director & Writer
The Falling (2014) – source: Entertainment One

Stunning cinematography and an intimate soundtrack come together to produce a film that feels perhaps choreographed rather than directed. Each element (sound, editing, camera and script) come together seamlessly at each moment. Much like the swooning, spiraling and fainting of the girls in the film, the audience is drawn into the woozy world through all of those elements coming together. 

Everything But the Girl’s Tracey Thorn composes an eerie and deeply unsettling soundtrack which is inseparable from the visuals of the film.  There are times where, because of this intrinsic link, The Falling could almost fall into the category of ‘musical’.

Maisie Williams stuns as the leading Lydia, and The Falling is quite possibly her first opportunity to show such range. Lydia is angry at Abbie for leaving her, at her mother for hating her and with herself for not being Abbie. She is vulnerable, alone whilst simultaneously tackling her impending adulthood.

Carol Morley, again, is exploring the barriers of communications that we struggle with. Lydia cannot articulate her fear of becoming an adult or the grief at losing her best friend. Her mother cannot articulate her fear of Lydia, the child she was never meant to have. The miscommunication, the silence between all of the characters show viewers a disconnected world full of anxiety and the unknown. The Falling, like all of Morley’s work, is purposefully deeply unsettling. She retains her talent for creating raw, uncomfortable work which is so flawlessly executed.

Conclusion

Through Carol Morley’s short yet impressive body of work, we can see how her films have become more refined and deliberate. Ideas about human connection, communication and loss are prevalent in all of her stories. Though Morley’s budgets have gotten bigger, and her style has become more cultivated – her style and focus are clear from her early shorts right up to The Falling.

Never scared to experiment with format (documentary, drama or reconstruction) or to tell a sincerely personal story, Carol Morley is truly a filmmaker of our time.

What’s your favorite Carol Morley film? Let us know in the comments! 

Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.
Becky spends her days working in TV and she spends every other minute writing about cinema, TV & feminism. Based in London, she also likes drinking gin, re-watching 'The X Files' and writing about on-screen representation and all manner of things over at femphile.com