Synopsis: Feeling isolated from an unwelcoming community, June and Jennifer Gibbons turn inward and reject communication with everyone but each other, retreating into their fantasy world of artistic inspiration and adolescent desires
Stars: Letitia Wright, Tamara Lawrance, Jodhi May, Michael Smiley, Jack Bandeira, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Delcan Joyce, Tony Richardson, John Hyat
Director: Agnieszka Smoczyńska
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: As an only child, I often wished I had a sibling. Mostly it was so I wouldn’t constantly be outvoted for what to do/where to go on family outings. Honestly, do you think I chose to see The Last of the Mohicans over The Mighty Ducks in 1992? No, though I know better now. A small part of me wanted to have a brother whom I could have the kind of bond with that I had seen in movies or through friends at school. Hey, a twin would be even better! I’ve always been fascinated with twins and the phenomenon of their sometimes near-psychic connection to one another.
The unique link between twins can have drawbacks, though, and that’s one of the areas explored in The Silent Twins. Based on Marjorie Wallace’s bestselling 1986 novel of the same name, it recounts the troubled life of June and Jennifer Gibbons, identical twins from Wales, and their struggle for independence even they can’t fully define. I’d never heard of these women before, so the film was an eye-opening glance back at history filtered through the creative lens of talented Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska, making her English-language debut.
Born in the early ’60s to parents that immigrated from Barbados, June and Jennifer began communicating only with each other at an early age. Refusing to engage with family, teachers, or classmates, the girls lived in a world of their own and often spoke the language of their creation. They would mirror the movements of one another and become catatonic if separated, which was an early solution attempted by medical professionals to break their silence.
Left to their own devices, the girls grew into young women who expressed themselves artistically through craft projects and, later, creative writing. Their inexperience with the outside world and lack of socializing led them to act out and make unwise choices, such as sharing first love with Wayne (Jack Bandeira, Gunpowder Milkshake), a popular boy from the neighborhood, a decision their jealous hearts would come to regret. Spurned on by changing emotions they couldn’t control, they found themselves in trouble with the law and in the first of several adult mental institutions that would define the next decade of their lives.
Smoczyńska’s film follows Andrea Seigel’s screenplay through the high points of the Gibbons twins, adding alluring flourishes along the way. There’s barely a creative stone that doesn’t get turned over here, from stop motion animation to choreographed musical numbers, cooing voiceovers, and then actual singing by Jennifer. It all makes the film a beautiful thing to soak in, even if much of it represents complicated developments in individuals that continually try the patience of all around them.
Having not read the source novel this is based on, I’m not sure how much the work wants us to sympathize with the twins or be exasperated by how they shut out the people trying to help them. Often in these movies of people struggling with mental illness, the patient is seen as needing something that’s missing. Still, the Gibbons twins have a supportive family that desperately wants to connect and see them succeed. We see the two make the conscious effort to shut everyone out. Why?
In that regard, it’s hard to warm to either twin even though they’re performed brilliantly by a quartet of fine actresses. As the twins when they are younger, Leah Mondesir-Simmonds & Eva-Arianna Baxter are fantastic introductions to the world the girls have created. Their fantasy lives are sunny and soaring, while the reality they have for themselves is sullen and withdrawn. Their elder counterparts are played by Letitia Wright (The Commuter) and Tamara Lawrance (Kindred). They take over at the right moment when the twins begin to experience the first genuine cutting-off ties with close family that won’t stand for their silence.
Running nearly two hours, Smoczyńska lets The Silent Twins wander too much around the Wayne sequence. It’s not only the roughest in terms of content but filmmaking. I would have liked more time spent in the final third when the twins are older and dealing with life in the hospital. That might have involved making Marjorie Wallace (the author of the book) a more prominent character than she already is, but Jodhi May plays her with such compassion I don’t think anyone would have minded. It’s a tough watch because of your feelings toward the main characters, but the moments of beauty and central four performances are enough to encourage viewing.