At first, it might seem strange that experimental Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska (“The Lure”, “Fugue”) chose for her third film a social justice drama about a pair of Black British twins and amateur novelists locked up for petty crimes. But the filmmaker’s esoteric style — “The Lure” was a bloody, lesbian take on “The Little Mermaid” — makes more sense once we get to meet June Gibbons (Letitia Wright) and her sister Jennifer (Tamara Lawrence). Identical twins born 10 minutes apart, June and Jennifer invent an entire language only for each other — and are despondent when anyone else tries to invade their fun. Smoczyńska illustrates the eccentric stories they tell each other with stop-motion puppets, musical montages and, in one Andy Warhol-inspired set piece, a deep pool of Pepsi washing ’round a living room.
Where “The Silent Twins” fails, however, is in tying that childlike expressionism to the stark grimness of the Gibbons’ real lives. A tale of structural racism, the mistreatment of the mentally ill, and the terrible conditions inside Britain’s prisons, June and Jennifer’s stunningly ill-judged incarcerations are presented with a frustrating flippancy clearly inherited from Smoczyńska’s cheerier opening proceedings. “The Silent Twins” never checks out of the (understandably) light touch it begins with, to the maddening detriment of its meatier storyline after the halfway mark. That makes for something less conventional than the Gibbons’ story might have prompted. It also prevents “The Silent Twins” having any real wallop.
One simple example of this is setting. That the Gibbons were the only Black family in Haverfordwest, their small, remote town in south Wales, is not even mentioned. Teachers’ oddly aggressive questions about the girls’ mental states miss the racial subtext at play. Clearly this is not something on Smoczyńska’s mind. Child actors Leah Mondesir Simmons and Eva-Arianna Baxter are memorable as elementary school-age June and Jennifer (respectively), but their parts are far too chirpy, particularly when we know what’s really going on under the surface. Wright and Lawrence are also affecting as the grown-up girls, even if playing the pair from the age of about 17 to 30 begins to jar. Another case of that frustrating inauthenticity comes in the portrayal of Haverfordwest, which never seems like a real place. Much of “The Silent Twins” was shot in Poland, and though that isn’t particularly obvious, it’s clear enough that not very much of this was shot in Wales. Smoczyńska and cinematographer Jakub Kijowski do their best to create a coherent hometown for the Gibbons girls, but it never seems like more than a bad impression of one.
And if “The Silent Twins” is let down by some respectably ambitious bets which don’t pay off, it’s also made weaker by a handful of dull tropes. Sunday Times journalist Marjorie Wallace, whose 1986 book of the same name is this film’s basis, is played in a few important scenes by Jodhi May. Yet the character is entirely two-dimensional, a “Bohemian Rhapsody”-style cardboard cut-out of a real-life person only there to make up the numbers. The same is true of a courtroom scene in which the twins are convicted of minor crimes and sentenced to indefinite internment at Broadmoor psychiatric hospital. From the caricatured casting choices to the cheap set and simple costumes, it all looks like a sequence out of a Mel Brooks satire, but “The Silent Twins” isn’t in on the joke.
These tonal errors ultimately come to define Smoczyńska’s film. In much the same way that the twins’ over-prescription of sedatives numbs them to pain — and progress — “The Silent Twins” is maddeningly lifeless on subjects which should prompt fury. When at the end of the film words appear on the screen to explain more about the Gibbons sisters’ lives, the truth is so appalling that you’re left asking why the previous two hours have been so inert. It doesn’t help that Wright and Lawrence play the pair with so little outward agency it becomes alienating. The young versions of the sisters are endlessly more energetic and exciting, and it’s strange to see that left behind when the film skips forward a few years.
Still, there are some artistic choices worth celebrating. The production design, particularly when used to succinctly tell the stories of the Gibbons’ wacky self-published books, is gaudy and gauche. Jack Bandeira as Wayne, a local American teen who becomes the target of both sisters’ romantic fixations, is a lovely characterization communicated well. It’s a shame that telling the Gibbons’ true story is a task too difficult for “The Silent Twins”, because there are real signs of promise. Smoczyńska’s next film, rumoured to be a jukebox sci-fi musical inspired by the songs of David Bowie, remains deserving of keen anticipation. The success of the director’s new project may be tied to an effective post-mortem of this one.
“The Silent Twins” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It has been acquired by Focus Features for U.S. distribution.