‘The Silent Twins’ Is a Stunning Fantasy About Twin Black Girls Trapped in Their Own World

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Cannes Film Festival
Cannes Film Festival

Agnieszka Smoczyńska, granted the chance of a far bigger budget for her English debut after two well-received features in her native Poland, throws absolutely everything in her toolkit at The Silent Twins. In this feature relating the true story of the Gibbons twins, June and Jennifer, with Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance in the main roles, Smoczyńska chucks in stop-motion animation, a dream sequence featuring synchronized swimmers and Princess Diana lookalikes, a dance sequence, an opening credits sequence read out by two of her actors, songs sung by the cast that tell the story (!), and, on top of this, a relentlessly bustling aesthetic, all upside down cameras, woozy-glassy effects, throbbing colors, stylized decors, and costumes so hyper-designed as to make Wes Anderson blush. It’s to the director’s immense credit that so much of this sheer directorial effort hits home.

June and Jennifer Gibbons, whose story is told over the course of about 20 years between the ‘70s and the early ‘90s, were twins who in their early years appeared bound by an extraordinary unspoken connection—very much unspoken, in fact, since the two girls were in the habit of speaking only to each other, in the little bedroom they shared. There, they built up an extraordinary world—a universe of outsider art, in effect—where they wrote stories and poems, collected images, and generally seemed to inhabit an inner sanctum cut away from society. In its early stretches, the girls are played by newcomers Eva-Arianna Baxter and Leah Mondesir-Simmonds with remarkable intensity, introducing us to the disquieting, mysterious bond between the sisters, and subtly delineating the differences between the quieter June and the more outgoing Jennifer.

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This world is richly depicted (perhaps in part because Marjorie Wallace, on whose book the film is based, acts as a producer here), figuring a supportive family unit with immigrant roots, a series of schools and advisers trying to get through to these strange girls, and, especially, the fantasy land they create together, using beautiful, bristling animation and voice-over from the girls. Smoczyńska’s set director works overtime to create detailed interiors of schools, police stations, the family living room, and the secretive bedroom: the director films these with a real eye for color and composition, making gorgeous use of the pairing of the twins to create evocative tableaux. Seeing the two girls filmed from above, shuffling in lockstep as they walk diagonally through a snowy playground toward the forbidding front door of a new school, is to understand the utter dislocation of these two Black girls in Wales, the sense of awe and otherworldliness that their relationship must have inspired, and the solace that each other’s companionship must have brought.

The film’s resourceful screenplay manages to draw some wry laughs from the girls’ sheer aliennness, which often contrasts with their banal surroundings with a kind of static crackle. As the twins grow older, and Wright and Lawrance assume the roles, the film takes a wicked pleasure in depicting their extraordinary attempts at finding ‘romance’: their understanding of the world around them is so heavily romantic and peculiar (they live in a world of toy parrots and Pepsi, of Princess Diana worship, of petty squabbles and imaginary radio shows) that they barely seem to stand a chance of landing a guy. The twins’ idea of romance is to write messages on cigarettes that they gift to a local fuckboy, Carl, who seduces them both in turn, after getting them high on Benzene. The film is shrewd, here in depicting sexual communion as akin to the imaginary world that the girls dwell in: the drugs, and the sexual ritual, transport them into a different realm for a second, where this loser is a king of romance. Smoczyńska then smartly cuts back to reality, showing Jennifer getting rudely despoiled in a crappy car.

Following this sexual awakening—undertaken by the girls in order to raise the quality of their prose and make their efforts ripe for publication—the twins become embroiled in an act of petty crime, which, on top of their unyielding behavior, sees them interned in Broadmoor detention center for a number of years. Again, the film imagines Broadmoor as seen by the twins: a world of swimming pools and dances, hairdressers, all shot in ripe pastels, before contrasting this vision with the rough reality. These representations of the Gibbons’ viewpoint have the effect of creating immense sympathy in a project which could so easily have been manipulative or attention-seeking: far from making creepy monsters of these unusual twins, the film embraces their difference, taking a visual lead from their subjectivity. In this, the film is abetted by bold performances from Wright and Lawrance, who don’t immediately seem to resemble one another but who create a tight sisterly bond and are skilled in showing the tension between love and hatred, the push and pull of this cloying relationship between Jenny and June.

Where this movie could have been a drab affair, siding with two girls who were cruelly misused by justice and their peers, The Silent Twins is on the contrary a quite joyous cinematic experience—funny, vibrant, simply humming with visual ideas—that pays tribute to the unending power of the imagination.

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