Agnieszka Smoczynska’s strange, whimsical and somber film “The Silent Twins” feels like a minor miracle. In a cinematic landscape where it seems like there’s only room for the predictably bombastic or prestigious, the odd, heartfelt gems that manage to slip through are to be celebrated.
Adapted by Andrea Seigel from the 1986 book by Marjorie Wallace, “The Silent Twins” is a creative, quirky and fantastical biopic of June and Jennifer Gibbons, British twins from Wales who communicated only with each other and through their creative writing. It is the third feature from Polish filmmaker Smoczynska, who broke through with her genre-smashing 2015 debut, “The Lure,” a mermaid horror musical, and she brings a similarly inventive approach to imagining the insular world of June and Jennifer.
Text at the end of the film indicates that the Gibbons’ written work has been incorporated throughout, including their poems, novels and short stories. Many of these pieces have been adapted literally, into rather macabre stop-motion animation sequences carefully crafted by Barbara Rupik. The first is a story about a pair of parrots living in a gilded cage, losing all of their purple feathers. The second is a fable about a doctor and his wife who have to sacrifice a loved one for the life of their baby. Rupik’s work is simultaneously grotesque and charming, providing a playful, wistful texture.
Smoczynska first brings us into the rosy subjectivity of June and Jennifer. It’s all close-ups and soft light as the girls play at hosting a radio program, bopping along to T. Rex tunes. But as soon as we see them as others do from the outside, everything is cold, dim and harsh. They are silent, their heads are bowed, engaged in a battle of wills against the world.
Leah Mondesir-Simmonds and Eva-Arianna Baxter play the twins in childhood, beautifully capturing the shades of dark and light in their young lives, sweet girls enduring bullies, special education and institutional separation. Letitia Wright portrays the adult June, with Tamara Lawrance stepping into the role of Jennifer. As adults, they’ve settled into an uneasy family routine, the silence somewhat tolerated. Their parents are immigrants from Barbados, members of the Windrush generation, recently chronicled in Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” series.
The twins decide to enroll in a writing correspondence course, which is both their salvation and their downfall. They decide they need to experience some romance and danger for material, and seduce an American jock named Wayne (Jack Bandeira), who introduces the sisters to sex, booze and the joys of huffing paint. These fantasy-filled sequences toe the line of reality and fiction, but their increasingly reckless actions land the sisters in the notorious mental hospital Broadmoor anyway. At 19, they are sentenced to an indefinite stay, and that is when the real horrors begin.
Seigel’s screenplay rather refreshingly doesn’t bother explaining why the sisters are the way they are, simply granting us access to their interior world without much psychological explanation. But if the film is lacking, it is in its glossing over the racism that the twins suffered in school leading to their withdrawal. Without explicitly addressing some of the external factors that led to their condition, it allows the audience to simply assume they’re under the spell of some unexplainable folie à deux, when in fact, their disorder does have a material genesis.
Despite this reluctance to engage with some of the harsher realities of their story, “The Silent Twins” is a unique viewing experience rendered in Smoczynska’s singular cinematic vision. It is a beautiful blend of unforgettable physical performance and visual lyricism brought to bear on the tragic life story of the Gibbons twins, their wildly imaginative writing woven throughout like a sparkling thread, offering a brief glimpse into their realm of existence and imagination.
Walsh is a Tribune Media film critic.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.