The troubling story of non-identical twins June and Jennifer Gibbons is recounted with heart, imagination and real experimental flair in this real-life drama embroidered with magical realist touches.
We meet the girls as nonverbal youngsters in a nondescript Welsh town in the ‘70s, sharing a house but not much else with their concerned West Indian parents, who fondly call them ‘the twinnies’ but struggle to connect with them. Their refusal to speak to, or in front of, other people sees them sent to a special school and into the care of a not especially enlightened teacher (Michael Smiley).
Letitia Wright and Small Axe’s Tamara Lawrance play them from their late teens to late twenties, charting their ambitions to become published writers, the occasional violent rivalry between them, and their deep, almost psychic bond. When the twins do speak, the two actors deliver the lines from the side of their mouths so they almost drop to the floor. It says much for their performances that it’s never grating. They fall in with a bad lot, take to sniffing petrol for quick highs and discover sex. Crime and detention with the bleak surrounds of southern England’s notorious Broadmoor Hospital follows.
It would have been easy to depict all this in a grim-faced misery-porn dramatisation – it’s been done before on screen several times. But Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska (The Lure) defies that conventional approach to inventively, seamlessly and upliftingly bring the girls’ rich interior lives to the screen with short stop-motion animations and dramatised short stories, using June and Jennifer’s own material to do it. Bathed in warm light and often captured in slick tracking shots, those Michel Gondry-esque interludes ensure that The Silent Twins celebrates the pair’s creativity as much as it records their marginalisation and ordeals.
Empathy and compassion bedrock this wonderfully original film
For all its tacit indictment of an uncaring system that can think of nothing better to do with two neurodivergent kids than incarcerate them, it’s not an angry or recriminatory watch. It’s adapted from a book by Marjorie Wallace, the Sunday Times journalist who first told their story (she’s played here by Jodhi May) and would go on to found mental health charity SANE. That same streak of empathy and compassion bedrocks this wonderfully original film.
The Silent Twins premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.