Nearly 60 years after their birth, the story of June and Jennifer Gibbons is still as compelling as it ever was. In her intriguing new film, The Silent Twins, Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczynska brings the heartbreaking and fascinating real-life story to the big screen. Smoczynska used journalist Marjorie Wallace’s 1986 book of the same name as the foundation for her film.
We meet the girls first during their formative years in Wales, England, portrayed by Leah Mondesir Simmons and Eva-Arianna Baxter. In their bedroom, they are transfixed with one another, locked in their own world where they have long and fascinating conversations. They are vibrant and loud —delighted to be with one another. Smoczynska uses stop-motion animation to display the twins' daydreams and their playtimes. In reality, the pair sit in their room all day, heads hung, whispering quickly and quietly to one another. When their mother enters their space, and when they encounter anyone else, there is a defining and eery silence.
'The Silent Twins' zips forward in time quickly.
The twins are booted from their traditional school and sent to one for special education students. They are even separated for a short time in an attempt to begin forcing them to speak. All the while, the cool tone hues of the film suggest darkness in the twins’ lives. The girls act as exact mirrors of one another, down to their body moments and how they walk. Smoczynska draws a deep and disturbing tension throughout her film, setting the audience on edge from the beginning. When the twins hurl themselves off moving horses during one of their therapy exercises, it’s evident that this is only the beginning of their painful journey.
By the 1980s, the girls' lives are very much the same.
June and Jennifer are now portrayed by Black Panther’s Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance. Though a bit less in sync than the younger actors — probably by design— their performances are what drive the film forward. Out of school now but still in their own world, the twins embark on a plan to become published authors. While June’s writing takes off, Jennifer captures the attention of an American boy named Wayne (Jack Bandeira), setting off a volatile and jealous-fueled feud between the pair. Unable to take hold of their emotions or imaginations, the girls eventually spiral out of control and are institutionalized for more than a decade.
Much of The Silent Twins works. Smoczynska’s choice to use animation to highlight how the sisters interacted is stunning. The performances — especially those of Wright and Lawrance are also striking. The actresses' physicality and anguish in their performances hold the audience even when the narrative begins to titter off the rails.
However, the main issue with The Silent Twins is the stark whiteness of it all. The racism the twins endured at the hands of their classmates, educators, peers, and doctors is never truly addressed. The misstep leaves a gaping hole in the story, which chooses to focus solely on mental illness. The Gibbons twins were born to Bajan parents. They were the only Black people in their Wales community, and they were ostracized, spat upon, and endured other racist cruelties from very early on. This bigotry is highlighted in the film during one school scene. Still, the long-lasting psychological effects of racism aren’t explored further, even though it almost certainly played a role in who the twins would become. Moreover, though it’s clear that the twins did have their own language, — they also spoke Bajan Creole at rapid speed, which the educators simply didn’t understand. This is never addressed in the film.
Moreover, June and Jennifer’s attempts to assimilate themselves into white culture, namely during their hangouts with Wayne and their obsession with Princess Diana, showed how isolating their anti-Black environment had to have been for them.
The Gibbons twins’ story is an important one to tell. Smoczynska gets a lot of it right, infusing the sisters’ actual passages, songs, and writings into the script. However, the nuances of their Black experience are barely highlighted, making them yet again misunderstood.
The Silent Twins was screened at the Cannes Film Festival on May 24, 2022, as a part of Unifrance’s Inaugural Critics Lab.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment
editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in Netflix’s Tudum, EBONY, JET,
ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis
on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a
cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her
reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide.