In many ways, the story of the “twinnies” — the term used by their mother — is a tragic one filled with heartbreak, but as told by filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczynska, it’s also a very beautiful story about two women who found solace in each other by establishing an impenetrable bond. Featuring striking performances by Letitia Wright (“Black Panther”) and Tamara Lawrence (“Boxing Day”), a diverse and quirky soundtrack, and wonderful stop-motion animation by Polish artist Barbara Rupik, “The Silent Twins” is a spellbinding drama that brings a fresh perspective to tell the amazing story.
The story of the “silent twins” was brought into the public spotlight thanks to investigative reporter Marjorie Wallace (played in the film by Jodhi May) who befriended the sisters, paying regular visits to the duo over the years in what began as a story for London’s Sunday Times. In 1986 she wrote a book about June and Jennifer, their story was turned into a BBC teledrama, a documentary that also aired on the BBC, and a play called “Speechless” which debuted in 2011. Smoczynska covers the Gibbons twins’ lives from the time they stopped talking, around the age of 8, until adulthood as June outlived her sister which began a transition into what some would call a “normal” life as she began interacting with society. Then again, one person’s normality is another’s conformity.
The twins were born on a military base in Yemen where their father had been deployed, he worked as a technician for the Royal Air Force. The family eventually moved to Wales where the girls experienced systemic racism, they were the only black children in the community. Played by Leah Mondesir-Simmonds and Eva-Arianna Baxter, the story begins during the elementary school years as June and Jennifer are bullied at school. They were ostracized after shutting down and refusing to speak to teachers, students, and their parents. The film suggests it’s how they dealt with racism.
In the privacy of their room, June and Jennifer are vibrant and full of imagination. They converse, laugh, and host their own make-believe radio show. But when their mother Gloria (Nadine Marshall) enters the room, they appear stoic, as they stare at the floor in silence. The story shifts to the girls’ teenage years (now played by Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrence) as they begin experimenting with booze, drugs, and sex, thanks to a blonde-haired jock named Wayne (Jack Bandeira resembling a young Michael Shannon) who the girls lure into their web with a simple pack of cigarettes. Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love/ Where Did Our Love Go” plays in the background as the sisters dance with each other in a barn before taking turns rolling in the hay with Wayne. Interestingly, they speak to Wayne, perhaps the intoxication of booze and romance eases their anxiety.
Much of the film is focused on the sisters’ teenage years. They begin writing in their journals, filling the pages with stories conceived from their vivid imagination, and poetry inspired by the world they created. In the hope of becoming celebrated authors, they purchase a typewriter and begin submitting their work to publishers. It was a very productive time for June and Jennifer, but it was also a dark period for the twins who end up in the Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital after committing arson (fueled by alcohol abuse).
Cinematographer Jakub Kijowski uses cool colors, shades of blue, green, and purple, for the film’s palette, a vintage look that reinforces the timeline. While Smoczynska breaks up the film’s heavy and somber tone with a diverse soundtrack featuring songs by Hot Chocolate, Amanda Lear, and T. Rex, and fantasy sequences such as a synchronized swimming scene where the sisters imagine the dreary psychiatric hospital as a luxury hotel. There’s also a wedding sequence featuring a Rasta prince, the girls were fascinated with Princess Diana’s wedding.
Boosting the film’s quirk factor, wonderful stop motion animation by Polish artist Barbara Rupik helps illustrate stories written by the twins including one about a pair of parrots. Smoczynska also created original songs for the film based on the writings in the twins’ journals. The original compositions perfectly blend with the established songs featured in the film which explains why I kept coming up empty-handed as I tried to Shazam any unfamiliar song.
June and Jennifer had an intense bond, as most twins do, and when separated they would fall into a trance, many times mirroring each other’s stances while separated. But that bond also comes with a dark side as illustrated in scenes where the girls became antagonists, controlling and almost killing each other.
Smoczynska manages to highlight the beauty of the special relationship June and Jennifer shared, not an easy task when so much darkness surrounded their lives. The film can be frustrating to watch as the twins’ behavior is never explained. But even to this day, all we know is their silence began as a therapeutic way to deal with the systemic racism they encountered as children, and I imagine it grew into a form of addiction that couldn’t be stopped. Choosing to remain silent even to those reaching out to help only reinforced their impenetrable connection.
“The Silent Twins” is a remarkable film featuring outstanding performances by Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrence. Director Agnieszka Smoczynska and writer Andrea Seigel bring a fresh perspective to the source material resulting in a captivating film that balances the bleak story with moments of lightness that underline June and Jennifer’s humor, creativeness, and beautiful spirit.
(3 ½ stars)
Now showing in theaters