The story of June and Jennifer Gibbons will, for most people, rest somewhere in the outer frontiers of their awareness (if that). Raised largely in Wales, children of Barbadian immigrants, they began, when young, to speak in an eccentric patois of their own – impressively replicated here – that shut them off from the rest of the world.
As time moved on, they made less and less effort to connect. Following some relatively minor acts of delinquency, the twins were scandalously detained in the notorious Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital in Berkshire for a decade.
There are the makings of a worthy, sentimental drama here. One could also imagine the story producing a raw slice of social realism in the style of Alan Clarke. The imaginative Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska has other ideas. Though certainly at home to overcast misery, the film incorporates spooky, stop-motion animation and musical interludes that might have amused Ken Russell. It works in surprising ways.
It hardly needs to be said that everything hinges on the core performances. Letitia Wright, current serving Black Panther, has already proved her versatility in Steve McQueen’s Mangrove and Frank Berry’s recent Aisha. She finds a new, more antic energy as June Gibbons here – playing riffs off her sister like an avant-garde jazz musician while the audience fails to catch up. The less well-known Tamara Lawrence is, if anything, even better as the marginally more sombre Jennifer.
The genius of the (ahem) twin performances is confirmed by one’s dwindling concern about the actors not looking much like one another. It helps that, as we progress, the film brings in references to The Pepsi Cola Addict, the near-legendary novel that June self-published in 1982 (a 2016 article in Lit Hub told of the author’s delight in tracking down one of five copies held in libraries worldwide).
Though skilfully made and formally structured, the film occasionally takes on the quality of “outsider art” – to use the fashionable phrase for works such as June’s book.
There is not much here about nature of the girls’ condition or how conventional society might have better accommodated itself to them. That perhaps explains why the film landed to mixed reviews at Cannes earlier this year. It is an oddball film. It is at home to jarring shifts in tone and attitude. It seems certain to grow on viewers as the years progress.
The Silent Twins is released on December 9th, 2022