The Silent Twins: this true-life tale is visually rich, musical, and not a little disturbing

Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s latest film, based on the true story of June and Jennifer Gibbons – identical twins who refused to talk to anyone except each other – is as empathetic as it is visually confrontational.

The Silent Twins (2022)

It’s easy to be distracted by killer mermaids who sing. Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s 2015 feature debut The Lure had such an eye-catching premise that the more formally conventional Fugue (2018) passed comparatively under the radar. But with her superb third feature The Silent Twins, it’s clear that Smoczyńska’s overarching theme is that of women in such extreme psychological circumstances (invariably through no fault of their own) that they’re happiest when completely shut out of ‘normal’ society, and that it’s only when society asserts its collective will that things go badly wrong.

The big departure with The Silent Twins (besides it being in English instead of Smoczyńska’s native Polish) is that it’s based on a true story – that of identical twins June and Jennifer Gibbons, who refused to talk to anybody other than each other. Both individually and together, they produced a huge body of creative work: tableaux involving dolls (which come to eerie life in the film via Barbara Rupik’s stop-motion animation), stories, poems and full-length novels, written in notebooks in tiny handwriting, edge to edge on the page as though paper were at a premium.

Letitia Wright (as June) and Tamara Lawrance (as Jennifer) aren’t as physically identical as the real Gibbons twins, but this dramatic licence helps us distinguish them in a way that they wouldn’t themselves have needed. In all other respects they uncannily mirror each other’s gestures and speech, including a distinctive impediment that suggests that they’re trying to talk through clenched teeth.

Smoczyńska frequently immerses us in the twins’ imaginative, intensely colourful universe as thoroughly as the hapless protagonist of June’s only novel to date, The Pepsi-Cola Addict (1982), finds his room flooded by the titular beverage; when the drab greys and browns of the real world suddenly return, it’s like a slap in the face. The parallel-worlds concept extends to the soundtrack, with familiar 1970s and 80s hits (useful temporal anchor points) being interspersed with songs composed for the film by Zuzanna Wrońska from lyrics based on the twins’ own writing.

It’s an exceptionally empathetic film: while remaining firmly on the twins’ side, Smoczyńska and screenwriter Andrea Seigel are careful not to demonise the authority figures who must intervene when the sisters’ behaviour turns to arson and physical attacks on each other. Michael Smiley’s teacher, Ben Moor’s psychologist and John Hyatt’s judge have a droopily disconsolate demeanour reminiscent of Bobby the dog, a recurring presence in the twins’ fantasies. They’re certainly a lot less sinister than the eerily blank-faced stop-motion puppet Dr. Pallenberg, who at one point performs a gory heart transplant operation to save the life of his baby son at Bobby’s permanent expense – although even Pallenberg has his reasons.

Smoczyńska is just as visually confrontational as she was in The Lure and Fugue (whose amnesiac protagonist wanders around naked from the waist down because she couldn’t find the appropriate clothes). There’s both a verbal and visual focus on bodily fluids, whether saliva (used aggressively), blood as a by-product of virginity loss, or the recurring way that the animated characters seem oddly saturated – possibly with tears, of which there are a great many.

The film largely elides the issue of the twins’ race, although there’s an early visual suggestion that, as the only Black kids in a Welsh market town, they were picked on by bullies, which might have triggered their solipsistic withdrawal. It may also explain why their joint choice of boyfriend is fellow outsider Wayne (Jack Bandeira), a stereotypical American jock who is only too happy to indulge them. And their desire for real-world experience is what gets them into serious trouble, as they extend the ‘write what you know’ principle to sex, drugs and the thrill of committing a crime – the latter invariably followed by dialling 999 and a full confession, as though that was all it took to expiate matters.

As an example of how thoroughly thought-through the film is, an Esther Williams-style musical number (imaginatively triggered by news that Broadmoor psychiatric hospital has a swimming pool) features male participants wearing either suits, school uniform or Virginia High jackets as sported by Wayne, representing the totality of the twins’ experience of the opposite sex. This is just one of many examples of how even the film’s sunnier moments are suffused with an overwhelming sense of loss. Such material could hardly have been a better fit for Smoczyńska’s existing preoccupations, and the result is her most impressive film to date.

The Silent Twins is in UK cinemas now.