‘The Silent Twins’ Review: Biopic on British Sisters Is Visually Inventive But Dramatically Lacking

·4-min read
Focus Features

There is safety and security in make-believe, in playing pretend, where the only things that can hurt are the things let into the mind in the first place. This is where June and Jennifer Gibbons take solace from the real world — a world full of hatred, and misunderstanding, and posturing. In their fiction, and otherwise inventive make-believe, the twins live out a happy life, all under their own control.

Imagination often bucks up against the cold, hard nature of reality, and it’s in this schism that Agnieska Smoczyńska’s “The Silent Twins” grows into something altogether original and meticulously crafted. The Polish director’s latest inventive feature is the story of the Gibbons twins: a true story, more or less, of sisters who struggled with mental health and persevered through writing and storytelling. Though the twins rarely, if ever, intended harm, they were prone to fits of impulsiveness, and in their late adolescence, they fell victim to harsh state-mandated mental health care, where their story turned tragic.

June (played first by Leah Mondesir-Simmonds, then Letitia Wright) and Jennifer (Eva-Arianna Baxter, then Tamara Lawrance) are two members of a Black family living in Wales. Though they’re undoubtedly idiosyncratic, they’re harmless children who fall victim to race-motivated school bullying. Their parents, well-intended and working-class, are out of their depth when it comes to dealing, let alone communicating, with them. The Gibbons twins, in turn, retreat inward, both to their bedroom and to each other, taking on speech patterns and language that feel entirely their own.

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Smoczyńska is perhaps best known by American audiences for her quirky mermaid film “The Lure,” and she returns for her first English-language feature with a similar visual language. The Gibbons twins’ adventures feel and look fantastical; the director plays with lighting, with dance numbers, with stop-motion animation. Many of these sequences are adapted from the twins’ real-life writings and journals. What real people failed to see when it came to the twins’ mental health becomes obvious to the audience, and preferable to the world that desperately wants them to conform.

The intention here is all well and good, and Smocyńska’s knack for visual originality is largely unparalleled, but where “The Silent Twins” falters is in its static script. Andrea Seigel’s adaptation of Marjorie Wallace’s book of the same name moves without dramatic or narrative momentum, leaving the viewer to ebb and flow between scenes of near-magical flights of fancy and harrowing, and sometimes violent, pain. The tonal shifts are met with aplomb, especially by the adult actresses playing the twins, but it is hard for the film to ever get out of the rut it gets stuck in, a push and pull between “delusions are more robust than the world can ever be” and “mental illness is not a joke — it’s actually horrible.”

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Whereas Smocyńska’s music video–inspired aesthetics were a natural fit for a movie about mermaids experiencing the world for the first time, her visual flair is often ill-fitting, if not callous, here. There’s little interest in the wholeness of these girls, in lieu of using them as vehicles for fantasy sequences.

Eventually, the film and the girls’ lives take a turn for the dark, as the Gibbons sisters are sentenced indefinitely to a harsh and unforgiving mental-health facility, where they are separated in hopes of “snapping them out” of whatever it is that plagues them. These sequences are harrowing, brutal and gray and frightening. And here it’s where “The Silent Twins” nosedives into something wholly miserable. Jodhi May enters as Marjorie Wallace, the sisters’ eventual biographer, who is poised as a type of savior, though even she can’t really help the girls within the system.

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Though Wright and Lawrance are more than up to the challenges of the film’s third act, it is a relentless push of misery and suffering, both girls screaming and crying and fighting against their imprisonment. When the film allows itself one last fantasy sequence at the end, it’s hard to feel as though the moment is anything but smug and self-aware in light of what’s preceded it.

It’s undoubted that the Gibbons twins were both original thinkers who were victimized by a system that did not recognize them as autonomous people, but it’s unfortunate that “The Silent Twins” is keen to do the same, reducing them to vehicles for aesthetic flexing and moral lecturing, rather than, as they themselves would have requested, simply letting them be.

“The Silent Twins” opens in U.S. theaters Sept. 16.