The Silent Twins Review: Letitia Wright stars in this moving and curious true story of twins June and Jennifer

June and Jennifer Gibbons’ story is one of those “weird but true” oddities. It stands somewhere alongside the Enfield poltergeist and the dancing plague of 1518. The writers – twins born in 1963 – grew up in Haverfordwest, Wales, daughters of first-generation Barbadian immigrants. From an early age, they refused to speak to anyone but themselves.

There were other ways of communicating with the world – through poetry and stories, or when they were older, drugs, sex and petty crime. At 19, they were found guilty of 16 counts of burglary, theft and arson. The sisters were institutionalized with an indefinite sentence at the notorious Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital, where they remained for 11 years.

People tend to fixate on the reasons for the sisters’ selective mutism. But Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s The silent twins, in his own passionate and lyrical way, asks a very different question: Is her choice really that hard to understand? The film was made with June’s blessing (Jennifer died in 1993; Smoczyńska touches on the mystery of her death) and draws directly on the observations of investigative journalist Marjorie Wallace, who was covering the sisters at the time. Leah Mondesir-Simmonds and Eva-Arianna Baxter play June and Jennifer as young girls, while Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance take on their older versions. It’s a quartet of perfectly synchronized performances, with the actors subtly elaborating on the ideological differences the women occasionally bicker over.

Smoczyńska’s film makes a point of never looking for a diagnosis or a concrete explanation for her chosen silence. Their idiosyncratic language, a mixture of Babardian slang and breakneck spoken English, is never imitated. Instead of this, The silent twins portrays the traumatic environment that contributed to her condition—the racism, the overburdened education system, the neglect, the systemic injustice—without straining to analyze. The film’s lack of contextual detail might be an unforgivable flaw for some. But it’s hard not to move from how gently Smoczyńska drifts away from the biopic elements of Andrea Seigel’s screenplay to instead inhabit the rich, inner world that the gibbons occupied.

Above all, The silent twins is a film that aims to validate the work of shunned artists. It’s a story about a single artistic soul split in two. Smoczyńska adapts her lyrics, which are now considered crucial examples of self-taught “outsider literature”, into a series of whisper songs and stop-motion animation sequences by Albert Coen and Barbara Rupik.

Concerned adults stand on the sidelines — journalist Wallace (Jodhi May), educator Tim Thomas (Michael Smiley), and parents Gloria (Nadine Marshall) and Aubrey (Treva Etienne) — but they might as well be ghosts. The silent twins focuses on what the sisters could control in their lives. Creative jealousy smolders as June’s literary career takes off (her novel, The Pepsi-Cola addict, was published in 1982). Pursuing romantic intrigue as a potential source of inspiration, they break into the home of a Native American teenager (Jack Bandeira) and write declarations of love on his cigarettes. So maybe Smoczyńska offers a reason for her selective mutism. To them, talking is an act of betrayal. Everything they have to say lives in their art.

D: Agnieszka Smoczyńska. Cast: Letitia Wright, Tamara Lawrance, Nadine Marshall, Treva Etienne, Michael Smiley, Jodhi May. 18, 113 minutes. The Silent Twins Review: Letitia Wright stars in this moving and curious true story of twins June and Jennifer


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