June and Jennifer Gibbons have been the subject of many articles and news stories. Adapted from journalist Marjorie Wallace's book, The Silent Twins explores the world these twin sisters created for themselves. While it vividly puts us in their headspace, the film, directed by Agnieszka Smocynska, struggles to address the larger story of theirs about how systems of health care and support caused them to live demeaning, unhappy lives.
The identical twins, born in 1963 in Wales, chose to stop speaking to anyone but each other for decades. Their primary form of communication was writing, creating eccentric tales and poetry. June even became a published author. Director Smocynska uses these writings throughout the film to create lyrics to songs and to create wonderful stop-motion sequences that illustrate their stories. It is one of the film's strengths that we get to hear so much of their prose.
Letitia Wright plays June and Tamara Lawrance plays Jennifer. The performances are both great but Lawrance makes the biggest impression, giving Jennifer a sinister streak that keeps tension building throughout the film. As strong as the visual language and performances are in the film, The Silent Twins feels like it is missing a key element. It is often more excited by indulging in these fabrications of their minds than probing into what makes them act the way we do. While we see many of the things that happened to them, we don't often understand the why. The Silent Twins can feel voyeuristic as a result, as if we are watching curiosities rather than people.
The film follows a fairly conventional structure, hitting upon all the major moments in their lives. The decision to stop talking happens but we never truly understand why. Just as we don't fully understand what leads them into a series of crimes that lands them in a maximum security hospital, Broadmoor. There they are drugged and torn apart from each other. The film curiously focuses the third act on Marjorie Wallace (Jodhi May), a reporter who wanted to tell their story.
When the film ends, I realized I had spent so much time in the Gibbons' headspace but still didn't understand what made them behave the way they did. We get a few hints at how racism and a lack of mental health resources led them to act the way they did but more of these elements would have helped the story illuminate the systems that failed the Gibbons sisters. Perhaps by focusing on their inner lives and not these external forces, the film aimed to make us know them better than a news article could.
I think The Silent Twins does that in fits and spurts. The film is visually striking and we do get a deep understanding of the internal dynamic of June and Jennifer. Jennifer's controlling nature eventually leads her to claim she was going to die. She did under unknown circumstances. I wish the film pulled more on the idea that Jennifer wanted June to be free and realized she had to go for that to happen. Still, there is a deep sense of love and admiration at play in the film. Wright and Lawrance are captivating here and often find brilliant ways of conveying deep emotions without speaking.