Film Review – The Silent Twins
The Silent Twins
The Silent Twins (2022) tells the true story of June and Jennifer Gibbons, twin sisters that – for reasons not entirely clear – refused to communicate with anyone except themselves. Together, they were playful, talkative, and creative spirits. But in the presence of others – even family members – they would bow their heads and withdraw. Things would only get worse when separated, with June and Jennifer entering a near catatonic state. Was it some sort of medical issue? Did it have something to do with being part of the only black family in their Welsh town? Was the silence due to the bullying they received in school? Did being together help or hurt their lack of communication?
These are the kind of questions that ran through my mind, and I’m not so sure any of them are fully addressed. That is the big misstep director Agnieszka Smoczynska and screenwriter Andrea Seigel commit while structuring their narrative. Adapting Marjorie Wallace’s book, Smoczynska and Seigel cover many details of June and Jennifer’s upbringing. We learn about the twins’ troubles in class, home life, their passion for the arts, encounters with the law, and visits to institutions to help “fix” their ailment. But nearly all of this merely skims the surface. We get a sense of what they did, but not who they were. Although Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance deliver committed performances as June and Jennifer respectively, the writing and direction does not provide enough insight to fully flesh them out.
Heavy emphasis is put on the twins’ creative endeavors. Stuck inside their bedroom, the two made dolls and recorded themselves on tape as a means of playing out their stories. This would eventually lead to an interest in writing. June and Jennifer’s real writing is shared through voiceover, accompanied by animated sequences and dreamlike re-enactments. The cinematography (Jakub Kijowski), editing (Agnieszka Glinka) and art direction build these moments as abstract flights of fancy. Smoczynska directs with dramatic flair, filling the screen with vibrant colors to contrast the drabness of the real world. Everything from stop motion to full on dance sequences are incorporated. When June and Jennifer fantasize about being successful writers, they envision something out of a Bubsy Berkeley musical.
Too much effort is put into the visual aesthetics, taking away from the human story. The depiction of June and Jennifer relies so heavily on their visions that we lose sight of who they were as living, breathing people. The twins clearly knew how to speak – we get scene after scene of them talking to each other. Yet even when they are with loved ones, they would close off. Their relationship with the rest of their family is lightly touched upon, to the point that it becomes an afterthought. What feelings did they have for their parents and siblings? Did they harbor ill will towards them? Family members come in and out of the picture like passing strangers. Perhaps that is what the production was trying to achieve. Maybe by shutting out other characters we would get an idea of June and Jennifer’s predicament. But by doing so, we lose empathy towards them. June and Jennifer grow into young adults and experiment with drugs, sex, and criminality, but why? This does not feel like natural progression. Are they just being rebellious youths? What exactly are they rebelling against?
Watching The Silent Twins reminded me of another film that made use of dreamlike imagery: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). In that instance, writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry never lost focus on character development. Every fantastical element was anchored by legitimate emotion. We understood how every strange and weird symbol related to the character’s motivations, thoughts, hopes, and fears. Everything felt tangible and real because it was tethered to feelings that we can connect with in an instant. That is not the case here. We are not witnessing June and Jennifer’s journey as though we are going through it with them. We are put in a position to examine them like scientists would observe a lab experiment. The result is detachment. When the twins break out in a dance routine inside of a tunnel, the effect is awkward rather than moving.
The third act flies off the rails as the plot shifts toward darker and ultimately heartbreaking areas. That is saying a lot given how much June and Jennifer went through up to that point. The closing passages loses its way by making trauma the central point of attention. We learn less about their unwavering connection as opposed to the pain and suffering inflicted upon them. It’s a classic case of characters being put through the wringer to draw out a reaction. That’s not to downplay the experience of the real June and Jennifer – they could very well have gone through the pain we see here. But the problem is that little else is explored beyond that. Even in moments of respite, a lingering sadness hangs in the air.
The dream sequences may be visually appealing, but add little depth in regards to the dreamers. Surely, The Silent Twins sets out with its heart in the right place: to tell the story of two people separated from society by unique circumstances. But the cinematic somersaults take too much attention away from its subjects. I came away learning very little about June and Jennifer Gibbons, the specifics of their situation, or the effect they had on those closest to them.