Review: The Silent Twins Chronicles the True Story of Sisters with a Strong, Unspoken Bond

There’s realism, there’s surrealism, and then there’s that difficult-to-explain middle ground that The Silent Twins occupies. From the great Polish-born director Agnieszka Smoczynska (The Lure) comes this true story about British Caribbean twin sisters June and Jennifer Gibbons, who only communicated with each other when no one else was around. When there was a parent, teacher or any other human being near by, they went stone-cold silent, moved in slow motion, and barely reacted to any outside stimuli. To them, it was something of a game or a behavioral exercise when they were young girls (they are played as children by Leah Mondesir-Simmonds and Eva-Arianna Baxter), but as they grow older and go though high school and early adulthood, it becomes something that more closely resembled mental illness, especially to those around them.

The film follows the girls from about the 1960s through the early 1980s, and as older girls and women, they are played by Letitia Wright (June) and Tamara Lawrance (Jennifer). By behaving this way since they were girls, the Gibbons sisters create a trippy, almost psychedelic world in which they are chatty, spirited and full of life and ideas, many of which they write down into journals. As they get older, they dream of turning their writings into actual novels, with June having some initial success in getting her first book published.

Based on the book of the same name written by journalist Marjorie Wallace (who is played in the movie by Jodhi May) and adapted by Andrea Seigel, The Silent Twins moves between the fantasy and harsh reality of the girls’ Welsh upbringing, in which they are kicked out of public school and forced into a special needs facility, even though they are wildly intelligent. Most of their lives, they are faced with educators who simply don’t know how to deal with them, including a very kind and patient one at their new school, played by the great Michael Smiley. As they grow older, the Gibbons sisters learn about sex from an American jock (Jack Bandeira) who does a thorough job putting them under his spell (with the help of huffing what I think is turpentine). And with their tendencies to lapse into fantasy, even these lurid sexual encounters seem like the ultimate romance novel in their minds.

On the rare occasions when one of them is tempted to or actually does slip out of their silent state (usually June), the reaction of the other is often violent, resulting in the girls ultimately being placed in a mental health facility until they stabilize. It’s there that they are visited by Sunday Times writer Wallace, who wants to get their writings and story out into the world; she believes they are simply misunderstood artists, and thinks she can lead a crusade to get them released, an effort that has mixed results.

Despite their being twins and so closely bonded, unique personalities between the women begin to emerge, along with some disturbing personality patterns. June seems to desire the world outside of her sister more as she gets older, while Jennifer needs the comfort of their make-believe world to survive. And as they grow apart, the film becomes more fractured as well. I was never quite sure what our takeaway from this story was meant to be beyond the novelty of the relationship between the twins and the failure of the educational system to engage them better (this may have been a losing battle in the end, but still). Despite these shortcomings, the lead performances are mesmerizing and even infuriating, since their refusal to break from their silent world leads to devastating consequences at times. The Silent Twins is elegantly shot, beautifully acted, and confoundingly executed.

The film is now playing theatrically.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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