Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczynska (The Lure, Fugue) makes her English-language debut with The Silent Twins, the strange and remarkable story of June and Jennifer Gibbons, twin sisters who only communicated with each other from 8 to later-teen years when drugs and drinking led to petty theft and an arson charge that landed them in the tightly secured medical ward of Broadmoor for 11 years before being released in the 1980s. Creating their own puppetry and dolls, poems and music, which they only broadcast for each other on a fake radio program, the “twinnies” as they were called by family fell into an odd void that became more pronounced, even when they were forced to go to separate schools at one point. And they carried on this way until becoming young women landing and in legal trouble until incredibly being incarcerated for over a decade, five or six times as long as the longest sentence for the petty crimes of which they were accused.
In knockout performances, Letitia Wright (Black Panther) and Tamara Lawrence star respectively as the older June and Jennifer Gibbons, who were born in 1963 into the only Black family in their Wales neighborhood, growing up being bullied to the point where school officials had to separate them from classmates who came from the same notoriously racist and almost completely white area. Their uniquely strange, mute-like behavior in which they even walked in unison to their own rhythm did not help, and finally at age 8 they reverted together into their own reality, one where they refused to talk, acknowledge or communicate with family or the outside world, instead creating their own world in their room, locking everyone out.
There they created their own characters and dolls (visually presented in the film through animated sequences); broadcast their own radio show to themselves, created plays, poems and songs; and spoke in an odd, patched-together language only they could speak, mostly with a lisp. This lasted many years, despite attempts by child psychologists, school officials and their family to snap them out of it. Finally at 16 they left school behind, became infatuated with some American boys and generally got into what you can label as good old-fashioned sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll until some shoplifting — along with even setting one building on fire — got them into deep trouble with the law when they were found guilty of arson and several counts of burglary.
Institutionalized at age 19 at the notorious Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric hospital where as the youngest patients ever admitted they again regressed into their silent world, and at times again engaging even in violence against each other. Over the course of 11 years they were apart, together, but stuck until journalist Marjorie Wallace (played by Jodhi May) heard about their story and found a way to gain their trust, conducting several interviews with them at Broadmoor that eventually became a celebrated piece for the Times of London, and later the basis of her book, The Silent Twins.
Working from a complex and compelling screenplay by Andrea Seigel, Smoczynska finds just the right tone and artistic path, right from the intriguing and playful opening credit sequence, to get visually inside the heads of June and Jennifer, into their own realities, and to make us understand, or at least try to understand this incredible tale. It really is the story of two artists expressing themselves creatively but not taken seriously due to who they were, something many artists can attest to. I was never aware of it despite there having been a 1986 BBC drama, 1994 BBC documentary and even the 2011 stage play Speechless based on their story, in addition to Wallace’s 1986 book, but this film takes a highly stylized approach to become much more than a linear telling of the Gibbons Twins It is perhaps more akin to films like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly over more conventional works based on true stories. The Polish filmmaker, working for the first time in the English language, manages to get to the heart of it with great visual help from cinematographer Jakub Kijowski, production designer Jagna Dobesz, a sensational score from Marcin Macuk & Zuzanna Wronska and striking animation.
In addition to Wright and Lawrence, both unforgettable, the young June is played by Leah Mondesir-Simmonds and the young Jennifer by Eva-Arianna Baxter, and they also are enormously effective, adding significantly to this astounding story and remarkable film.
Focus Features has yet to set a domestic release date. The film had its world premiere on Tuesday night at the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section.
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