The Silent Twins
2022, NR, 113 min. Directed by Agnieszka Smoczyńska. Starring Letitia Wright, Tamara Lawrance, Michael Smiley, Jodhi May, Jack Bandeira, Treva Etienne, Nadine Marshall, Leah Mondesir-Simmonds, Eva-Arianna Baxter.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 16, 2022
The Silent Twins is not the first work of art to have been based on the lives of the real-life twins, June and Jennifer Gibbons, two Black girls who were born in Barbados in 1963 but grew up in South Wales after their parents emigrated to Great Britain. Despite their ambitions of becoming published authors, and the many telltale signs of the girls’ creative endeavors, which involved the making of puppets, dolls, and radio shows in their shared bedroom, June and Jennifer speak to no one but each other – not their parents or other family members, nor their teachers, classmates, psychiatrists, or strangers. The twins’ baffling but compelling story is one that touches on artistic impulses, racial division, female identity, idiopathic psychology, the inadequacies of our educational and psychiatric institutions, and so much more. Yet in the end, the June and Jennifer of this telling are no less enigmatic figures than they were at the beginning of the movie.
Why the girls speak to no one but each other, why their personal bonds spill over into occasional knock-down, drag-out fights, or why they obstinately shut out anyone who tries to engage with them remain a mystery in this film. The girls’ language becomes more idiosyncratic and their behaviors and movements often occur in parallel. Once the school system did what it could for them, the sisters were confined to special boarding schools and psychiatric facilities, and frequently separated in attempts to break their co-dependency. But the girls just became catatonic and further withdrawn. Eventually, after some acts of public vandalism and arson, they were placed in Broadmoor, a notorious psychiatric institution where they remained for more than a decade. Their story was widely publicized when journalist Marjorie Wallace wrote about them in the newspaper and published her popular book The Silent Twins in 1986.
Perhaps the ultimate embodiment of outsider artists, the Gibbons sisters’ life stories offer tantalizing metaphors. Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska makes her English-language feature debut and elicits searing performances by Letitia Wright (June) and Tamara Lawrance (Jennifer) as the insular twins. The film provokes so many questions about their strange behavior and its causes, however Andrea Seigel’s script, which is based on Wallace’s book, refuses to psychoanalyze the pair. While it’s refreshing to witness aberrant behavior presented without the underpinnings of subjective and/or objective explanations, it’s also rather frustrating. Although the film allows us a certain emotional proximity to the twins, it never rewards us with understanding or dramatic resolution. Their story draws us in, but distant (and silent) outsiders they remain.