Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance star in Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s ambitious but flawed biographical feature.
Jennifer and June Gibbons were identical twins who moved with their family to Haverfordwest in Wales in 1974. They loved writing, art, and had vivid imaginations which enabled them to create fantastical stories. They also refused to speak to anyone except each other, which earned them the monicker ‘The Silent Twins’ and resulted in ostracisation and bullying from other children at school, as well as ill-treatment from their teachers.
After attempts to separate the girls by placing them in different boarding schools resulted in them becoming catatonic, they were allowed to remain together, but later bouts of drug use and petty crime resulted in them being reprimanded to Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital indefinitely, where they remained for 11 years. In 1993, when they were moved to a less restrictive clinic in Wales, Jennifer died during transit. The cause of her death has never been fully determined.
This context is important for understanding Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s adaptation of journalist Majorie Wallace’s book about Jennifer and June, which boasts a fierce imagination and utilises various creative techniques in an attempt to celebrate the life of two women who were failed by society time and time again.
Despite the noble intentions of Smoczyńska and her screenwriter Andrea Seigel, The Silent Twins is a broad strokes attempt at showing the Gibbons Sisters’ lives, one that fails to represent the institutional racism and discrimination which had a profoundly damaging effect on them and quite possibly led to Jennifer’s premature death.
The film opens with an animated credits sequence that breaks the fourth wall as Eva-Ariana Baxter and Leah Mondesir Simmons (who play the Gibbons twins as children) introduce the cast. It’s a charming scene that suggests a levity the film is keen to thread through the story, as Jennifer and June’s shared language and imagination provide an escape from a world that continually refuses to understand them.
The animated and musical scenes woven through the film are naive in composition, inspired directly by the extensive diaries and stories the twins wrote throughout their childhood, adolescence and eventual time in Broadmoor. This is contrasted against a stark reality full of sour-faced bureaucrats and kindly but concerned onlookers who consistently reinforce the idea that the twins’ strong bond is detrimental to their health.
This is where the film falters. Growing up in the 1980s, particularly as a Black child, particularly as a Black child with a perceived mental illness, would likely have come with a great deal more stigma, racism and hardship than Smoczyńska and Siegel depict. Their time at Broadmoor, while unpleasant, does not relay that the hospital was considered one of the most notorious psychiatric facilities in the country – a place where murderers including Peter Sutcliffe and Ronnie Kray were held, and the subject of frequent instances of patient abuse.
The Gibbons family has spoken about how twins’ health declined as a result of being held against their will for 11 years, but this film does not do a great deal to condemn the draconian structures in the UK that purported to protect the twins but in reality only served to harm them.
One has to wonder if a Black filmmaker and a Black screenwriter would have had a more damning take on the injustices which the Gibbons twins faced through their childhood and adult lives.
Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance give their all as June and Jennifer, and their younger counterparts are surely stars on the rise, but the story stops short of condemning the cruelty of the system they were raised within, which feels crucial to understand why they might have retreated so much into themselves and the imaginary worlds they created together.
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Published 25 May 2022
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