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Describing the ineffable yet oh-so-real connection between sisters—or any siblings—isn’t easy. Kudos to Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska, whose artful, ambitious exploration of the perverse sisterhood of Jennifer and June Gibbons, The Silent Twins (opening Sept. 16), powerfully depicts the recognizable, universal aspects of a singularly notorious relationship.
Born in 1963, the real-life identical twins were the children of a couple from Barbados who emigrated to England. The only Black children in sight (along with their siblings), June and Jennifer created a language and retreated into a world of their own devising. By 1974, when the family relocated to Wales, the twins had ceased speaking in public and responding to their teachers, principals or psychologists.
June and Jennifer, like many sisters, fashioned a bond and a pact that no one else was privy to. Then they went further, striking an unhealthy contract that effectively locked them in their own embrace and eliminated outside influences. It would be simplistic to say that The Silent Twins is the saga of a love-hate relationship, but the hot coals of familial tension—between need and resentment, and autonomy and inseparability—fuel both the drama and its haunting aftereffects.
An important facet of June and Jennifer’s relationship—which Smoczynska, making her English-language debut, mines for its innocence, beauty and wit—was their creativity, manifested in their writings and drawings. Deployed in The Silent Twins as goofy animated scenes and lush fantasy sequences, they provide an antidote to the palette of dark blues and purples that the filmmaker uses to depict both the uninspiring U.K. institutions of the ’70s and the perpetually under-lit bedroom that served as the sisters’ studio, cloister, refuge—and battleground.
If The Silent Twins can’t fully explain the source or cause of the sisters’ extreme alienation—pervasive racism, inflexible academicians, feeling like perpetual outsiders—it has an unwavering grip on the volatile dynamics of sibling rivalry (potentially even more acute with identical twins). A commitment to codependence and cooperation can evaporate in a heartbeat in a fury of competition, as one pivotal scene illustrates.
June asks Jennifer for a loan in order to self-publish a book of her work. Jennifer is stunned, perhaps in part by her sister being ahead of her creatively, but primarily by the act of individual expression and ambition. It’s a kind of betrayal, even though June promises to repay her when Jennifer is ready to take the same step. (The book arrives sometime later, in a room they share in a quite different place, and Jennifer disrupts June’s pleasure by cranking the radio—setting off one of the ferocious fights that dot the film.)

Just as The Silent Twins meshes its visual approaches (the drab realism of the real world with the off-center universe imagined by the sisters), the film successfully combines the perspective of the outside world (also the audience’s point of view) with the twins’ private relationship (familiar yet disturbing for any viewer with siblings). We are sufficiently immersed in Jennifer and June’s day-to-day life to experience its specialness, good and bad, without feeling trapped or claustrophobic. If we want that feeling, we do have our own family patterns to contemplate.
The film’s approach to evoking the twins’ interior lives extends to the soundtrack. Zuzanna Wronska’s lyrics, for spare, ethereal songs with titles like “Bliss,” “We Two Made One” and “Dear Death,” either quote directly or are inspired by the Gibbons sisters’ writings. That body of work, incidentally, came to light via investigative reporter Marjorie Wallace, who wrote a newspaper article about the twins’ criminal trial, befriended and advocated for them during their horrific and lengthy incarceration in a hospital for the criminally insane, and published The Silent Twins in 1986.
June and Jennifer (played at this point by Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance) embarked on curious acts of destruction in their late teens, seemingly part of a project to expand and enhance their writing by experiencing life. They first stepped out (and out of character) by hooking up with a local lout (Jack Bandiera) for drugs and sex, which naturally exacerbated the twins’ rivalry. Arrested on petty theft charges, they refused to offer a plea or otherwise speak, resulting in their tragic, open-ended remand to Broadmoor Hospital.
While the film doesn’t resolve the enigma at the heart of the twins’ story, its exploration of their relationship delivers a raw, heightened experience. Ultimately, The Silent Twins depicts the utterly unique story of Jennifer and June Gibbons as a sympathetic, disturbing portrait of something that will be recognizable to many—what it means to come of age as women in an unwelcoming society.

‘The Silent Twins’ opens in Bay Area theaters on Friday, Sept. 16.

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