The Silent Twins tells the true story of June and Jennifer Gibbons, twins who grew up in Wales in the 1970s and who refused to speak to anyone except each other. The girls’ lives of withdrawn silence and solitary apartness changed radically when they became teenagers, discovered boys and, after a spree of petty crime mutated into arson, ended up in Broadmoor, the UK’s most notorious high-security psychiatric hospital.
Eventually, investigative journalist Marjorie Wallace learned about the twins and started to campaign on their behalf, leading eventually to their release after 11 years of an indefinite sentence (ie they could have remained inside for the rest of their lives).
How the hell do strange, disturbed teenagers end up in a hospital next door to infamous serial killers? Why didn’t June and Jennifer speak? Was racial abuse (the girls are black in a largely white Wales) part of the equation?
The bizarre thing about The Silent Twins is that writer Andrea Seigel’s adaptation of Marjorie Wallace’s book about the case doesn’t address any of what you might call the usual questions. Barely touching on any of the externalities, instead she’s interested in the bond between the two girls.
As is director Agnieszka Smoczyńska, who has built a career thus far specialising in films about women asserting themselves in difficult situations. Films like 2015’s The Lure (the mermaid as horror-movie monster) or 2018’s Fuga (amnesiac wife and mother re-adapts to a family life that now means nothing to her). She’s entirely in step with Seigel in bringing this story to the screen, opening with a cosy, warm and lively scene of the two girls chatting away happily together, sharing confidences and laughing the way girls (here played by the excellent Eva-Arianna Baxter and Leah Mondesir-Simmonds) do when they’re in their own space.
Handbrake turn. “Their own space” turns out to be their shared headspace. Smoczyńska lifts a corner on the sisters’ interior life before returning abruptly to the cool palette and cold soundscape of the real world. Here the two girls are unified in their silence, sullenness and lack of eye contact with anyone. This extends even to their own family, despairing but loving mum (Nadine Marshall) and dad (Treva Etienne) and siblings who are pissed off verging on mutinous at the girls’ behaviour.
From here, almost in chapters, Smoczyńska and Seigel take us onward and downward – the local school expels the twins; the special school they’re sent to soon tires of them; they’re separated; they reunite years later as teenagers (and now played by Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrence); lairy local lad Wayne (Jack Bandeira) introduces them to solvent abuse, sex, booze and crime; they set fire to a building; Broadmoor.
It could so easily have been a miseryfest if Seigel and Smoczyńska had focused just on the externals. Instead we see the world the girls construct for themselves, and get to share their aspirations, particularly when June and Jennifer discover a creative writing correspondence course, buy a typewriter and embark on an orgy of story- and poem-writing, some of which Smoczyńska animates in a style that’s a cross between Wallace & Gromit and Jan Svankmajer (cute, but with a threat).
The other point of light is Marjorie Wallace, as played by Jodhi May, who hits the same cold front when she first talk to (talks at, in fact) the stonewalling Jennifer and June in Broadmoor and starts her campaign to get them out.
I must emphasise that this is not the story of that campaign, nor of the puzzle being solved of the girls’ condition. These things features only in the background. The foreground is the girls’ relationship to each other and the vibrant happy lives they seem to be living behind their masks of imperturbability.
It is most odd, and maybe explains the mixed reception. People who want stuff explained will be frustrated by The Silent Twins. Explanations are not offered, and there are none to be taken. But as a film about the special bond between twins, it’s in a league of its own.
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