Producers: Ben Pugh, Ewa Puszczyńska, Anita Gou, Alicia Van Couvering and Letitia Wright Director: Agnieszka Smoczyńska Screenplay: Andrea Seigel Cast: Letitia Wright, Tamara Lawrance, Leah Mondesir-Simmonds, Eva-Arianna Baxter, Nadine Marshall, Treva Etienne, Michael Smiley, Jodhi May, Jack Bandeira, Kinga Preis, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn and Tony Richardson Distributor: Focus Features
The disquieting story of identical twins June and Jennifer Gibbons, whose alienation from the Welsh society in which they were raised resulted in their communicating only with one another (and in an invented language, a point ignored here), is told in an deliberately strange way by Andrea Seigel and Agnieszka Smoczyńska in their semi-surrealistic adaptation of Marjorie Wallace’s 2011 book. The mannered approach, while artistically defensible in terms of creating in the viewer some sense of both the disorientation the girls experienced and the inability of outsiders to understand them, nonetheless leaves “The Silent Twins” feeling more affected than affecting.
June and Jennifer are first presented as adolescents (played by Leah Mondesir-Simmonds and Eva-Arianna Baxter, respectively). Their quiet, restrained Barbados-born parents Gloria (Nadine Marshall) and Aubrey (Treva Etienne) want them to have as normal a life as possible, but by the time they’re eleven, they have retreated, partially as a result of the racist treatment and bullying they suffered (matters only glancingly treated here) into a kind of communal isolation, keeping apart from their classmates and even their family; they spend most of their time together in their tiny room, whispering to one another and fashioning fantasies between themselves—a practice that annoys their older sister Greta (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) so much that she will eventually declare that she’s done dealing with them altogether.
A visit to their school by a physician leads to their becoming the focus of official counseling, with kindly but perplexed Tim Thomas (Michael Smiley) trying to break through to them but finally admitting failure. A decision is taken to send them to different boarding schools in the hope they might develop as functioning individuals when separated, but their condition grows even worse, until finally they are sent home.
Back in their little room, now played by Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance, they fill journals with their imaginative stories, eventually purchasing a typewriter with their government checks, and act them out with handmade puppets—scenarios periodically inserted here in macabre stop-motion sequences fashioned by animator Barbara Rupik, or conveyed through newly-composed songs that mine excerpts from their writings to serve as lyrics. (The film’s music is credited to Marcin Macuk and Zuzanna Wrońska.)
Eventually they become fixated on Wayne Kennedy (Jack Bandeira), a handsome, hell-raising American teen living nearby, and after literally breaking into his parents’ home, hang out with him and his brother; in the process they’re introduced to alcohol, drugs and sex, often of a very rough kind. In this telling Wayne is even subsumed into the protagonist of June’s self-published novel “The Pepsi-Cola Addict,” about a California high-school student whose lust proves, in the scenes dramatized here, luridly calamitous.
The girls are drawn into destructive acts themselves and are charged with a series of petty crimes that ultimately result in their being sent to Broadmoor, the prison-like psychiatric hospital, despite their youth, apparently because the authorities are simply at a loss about what else to do with them; the doctors there prove as inept at treating them as past counselors. But their case attracts the attention of journalist Marjorie Wallace (Jodhi May), who crusades for their release. On the very day of their transfer to another, less punitive facility, however, Jennifer dies—though the dominant personality of the two, it is she who succumbs to the girls’ premonition that eventually one will have to leave the other alone.
Smoczyńska and Seigel’s film does not attempt to explain the Gibbons twins, only nodding in this direction of societal factors that might have had a role in how they developed and in the end allowing their case to remain as mysterious as it’s always been. Instead, they try both to present an episodic biographical account through 1993, the year of Jennifer’s death, in a fairly realistic style, and to penetrate the girls’ conjoined inner life, in a more hallucinatory, nightmarish one, the two approaches sometimes bleeding into one another. Perhaps the intent was to blend the picture’s two parts in a fashion suggestive of the way the girl’s personalities struggled to become one, but in the end the picture it draws remains fragmentary and oblique—an inevitability, perhaps, but one you can find frustrating nonetheless.
If the film’s different goals and varied techniques don’t make for a coherent whole, though, the individual contributions are impressive, starting with the intense, compelling performances of both sets of actresses—Mondesir-Simmonds and Baxter as the girls’ younger incarnations, Wright and Lawrance as the older. Neither pair looks exactly alike, of course, but they’re all so good that one hardly notices. The other cast members are more workmanlike, with the exception of May, who’s all moroseness, and Bandeira, who offers a creepy combination of charm and smarm.
Equally important is the contribution of the technical crew, who are instrumental in projecting the portentous, doom-laden mood. Rupik’s animated doll sequences are genuinely sinister, and they’re accompanied by an unnerving sound design by Marcin Lenarczyk. The production design (Jagna Dobesz) and costumes (Katarzyna Lewińska and Cobbie Yates) add to the unsettling atmosphere, with the whole package aptly shot in often lurid tones by cinematographer Jakub Kijowski; and while the film is hardly meant to be smooth and seamless, editor Agnieszka Glińska ensures that it remains coherent within the parameters Smoczyńska has set.
“The Silent Twins” might remind you of another fact-based tale of two girls whose fantasies led them to disaster—Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures.” That film was masterful; this one isn’t. But while it comes in second-best, it’s an intriguing attempt to wrestle with a similar story that’s disturbing on many levels.