As the saying goes, truth is often stranger than fiction — though in the case of Jennifer and June Gibbons, both their truth and their fiction were pretty out there. In The Silent Twins, director Agnieszka Smoczynska tells the fascinating story of the real-life identical twin sisters who grew up in Wales in the 1960s and ’70s, speaking only to each other and spinning elaborate fantasies both via felt dolls and through their prolific writing.
Andrea Seigel’s screenplay is based on the same-named 1986 book by Marjorie Wallace, an English journalist whose newspaper articles helped bring the twins’ story to the public’s attention. The film follows the sisters from their childhood, when their refusal to speak or communicate with others led to problems at school and a disastrous separation, through their teenage years and into young adulthood, when they lived largely in their shared room and churned out diaries, poems, stories, and novels. Curiosity and restlessness leads them to drinking and drugs, as well as problematic sexual relationships and crimes like arson and theft — which, in turn, leads to their involuntary commitment to England’s notorious Broadmoor Hospital.
Smoczynska uses stylized visuals and excerpts from the twins’ writing to establish their unique lived experience and relationship with the world around them. Each is wholly co-dependent on the other, to the point that they develop their own special way of speaking, can communicate with each other with mere twitches of the eye, and mirror each other’s physical movements. Tamara Lawrance (as the teenage/adult Jennifer) and Letitia Wright (as June) give compelling performances, making it clear how much the Gibbons sisters both relied on each other to live and desperately needed to find a way to separate in order for either of them to thrive.
It would have been easy for a movie based on a story as unusual as Jennifer and June’s to take the exploitative, salacious route, turning the sisters into a sideshow attraction. But, while Smoczynska and Seigel don’t shy away from depicting the bizarre truth of the twins’ life, they don’t sensationalize it, either. Ultimately, The Silent Twins is a compassionate exploration of a complex relationship ruled by mental illness. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Sandie Angulo Chen: The Silent Twins is a remarkable biographical drama about Black Welsh twins June and Jennifer Gibbons, who famously not only participated in cryptophasia (twin speak) but were also selectively mute with nearly everyone else – teachers, classmates, psychologists, even their other family members. Played by Laetitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance are both excellent as the older versions of the twins, who have rich imaginations and creative impulses that they only share with each other, remaining titularly silent with the rest of the world. Director Agnieszka Smoczynska, working off Andrea Seigel’s adaptation of British journalist Marjorie Wallace’s 1986 book about the twins, cleverly depicts the twins’ co-dependence as simultaneously beautiful and unhealthy. Jakub Kijowski’s cinematography also vividly conveys the twins’ reveries and inimitable intimacy. A fascinating drama that boasts top-notch performances.
Leslie Combemale Outsider artists, by definition have a unique view of the world, one often borne out of alienation or isolation. The Gibbons sisters, or, as this film calls them, “The Silent Twins”, are real-life examples of how the British public health system has failed its populous. Their story is fascinating, and makes for good cinema, but I would have liked to see more about the impact of institutional racism on their art and their ever-downward mental turn. Both Leticia Wright and Tamara Lawrance perform brilliantly, and capture the tenacity these twins had in common as well as bringing the marked differences between them clearly to life.
Jennifer Merin The Silent Twins is a truth-based coming of age drama about real life twin sisters, June and Jennifer Gibbons, who grew up in Wales, baffled everyone because they would communicate only with each other and were separated from each other when they were institutionalized. The film presents a compelling and compassionate portrait of complicated and inexplicable mutual mental illness. With Andrea Seigel’s screenplay based on Marjorie Wallace’s book, Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczynska does a brilliant job of revealing the twins’ psyche and illustrating their strange behavior while keeping much about their psychological condition/motivation a gripping mystery. Jakub Kijowski’s cinematography effectively captures some of the twins’ fantasy life. Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance give magnificent performances as the girls becoming young women.
Marilyn Ferdinand The bond identical twins share has been the subject of scientific study and artistic curiosity for many years. Among the twins that have provoked the most curiosity are June and Jennifer Gibbons, sisters whose Barbadian parents raised them in the United Kingdom. The twins invented their own language and eventually refused to communicate with anyone but each other, complicating their family life and frustrating their teachers and the psychologists who tried to get them to integrate into larger society. Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska, whose film The Lure (2015) dealt with another pair of odd sisters (mermaids), was naturally attracted to the Gibbons story. She draws effective performances from her cast, particularly Leah Mondesir-Simmonds and Eva-Arianna Baxter as the young June and Jennifer Gibbons, and makes interesting use of stop-motion animation to bring the imaginative stories the sisters wrote to life. The twins’ unusual behavior was baffling to those in their orbit, and despite Smoczynska’s dramatization of their private conversations and activities, the Gibbons twins retain their inscrutable mystery.
Susan Wloszczyna: Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska serves up an edgy, unnerving and provocative drama with her latest movie The Silent Twins. Not since The Shining have female twins gotten so under my skin. This fictionalized true-life story focuses on June and Jennifer Gibbons, two Black sisters who grew up in Wales and stuck together. Both had a creative streak but they also had major mental illness issues, including incidents of self-harm and psychological woes. Read full review.
Loren King A strange movie about a strange real life subject, The Silent Twins does not fall into horror tropes about twins such as The Shining and The Other. But it’s still an odd, uncomfortable, confounding look at twin sisters played by Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance who from childhood communicate only with one another. With their seemingly loving parents, older sister, and even attentive teachers at school, they clam up and look away in what seems a telepathic pact. It is confusing when, as teenagers eager for romance, they both talk with a popular teen boy who supplies them with drugs. We never do understand why they shut out people who are well meaning and kind. Director Agnieszka Smoczyńska creates an unsettling, almost hallucinatory world, using music and the girls’ output of stories and poems which they compose feverishly in their bedroom. The Silent Twins is not for everyone but the performances of Wright and Lawrance from first scene to the disturbing final ones and are compelling and worthy of attention.
Liz Whittemore The real-life story of twin sisters June and Jennifer Gibbons continuously confounds psychologists and curious onlookers alike. As young girls from Barbados whose father transferred to Wales for for work, they were the only Black family in their neighborhood. The girls experienced insurmountable isolation and bullying. As a result, they turned inward, refusing to speak to anyone other than each other, and exhibited succinct behavior, almost catatonic at times. With each passing year, The Gibbons sisters enigmatic relationship wreaked havoc on their family, communities, and each other. The Silent Twins creatively illustrates their experiences. Theirs is a story that baffles the world. Read full review.
Title: The Silent Twins
Director: Agnieszka Smoczynska
Release Date: September 16, 2022
Running Time: 113 minutes
Screenwriter: Andrea Seigel, based on the book by Marjorie Wallace
Distribution Company: Focus Features
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin