February 7, 2023

AAt the recent British Independent Film Awards (Bifa), the award for Best Joint Leading Role went to Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance for their leading roles in this stylistically adventurous tale of real-life twins June and Jennifer Gibbons. Other nominations in the same category included Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio for After sun, which turned out to be this year’s big Bifa winner; Daryl McCormack and Emma Thompson for the bittersweet sex comedy Good luck to you, Leo Grande; and Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear for the Fabulous Men. All of these nominations were for films in which a central couple brilliantly carries the drama, sometimes in multiple roles. But still in Poland/UK/US co-production The silent twin, Wright and Lawrance convince us that they are two sides of a divided soul, with their performances that perfectly balance between osmosis and individuality.

Born on April 11, 1963, the Gibbons twins, Barbadian British children raised in Wales, were inseparable, increasingly speaking only to each other in a hurried, arcane tone that was virtually indecipherable to others. Facing bullying and exclusion at school (the education system clearly failed them, as well as the health and legal services), they apparently retreated into their own private world before being dragged into the public spotlight in the 1980s after being arrested for vandalism, theft and arson. Their story quickly became the stuff of modern legends, inspirational dramas, documentaries and stage productions.

Adapted by screenwriter Andrea Seigel from the 1986 non-fiction book by journalist Marjorie Wallace, The silent twin follows the lives of the Gibbons sisters from childhood on the island – young June and Jennifer played by Leah Mondesir-Simmonds and Eva-Arianna Baxter – through rebellious adolescence to brutal incarceration at Broadmoor mental hospital, where they spent more than a decade stayed. It is here that Wallace (Jodhi May) meets and interviews the sisters, encountering the tranche of diaries, stories, poems and novels they had collected over the years – writings that inform the dreamy sequences that meander through the film. These creative writings also provide a springboard for the extraordinary animation sequences (accolades to stop-motion maestro Barbara Rupik) and musical fantasies that The silent twin above the realms of a biopic into something totally more transformative.

Leah Mondesir Simmons and Eva-Arianna Baxter as young June and Jennifer.
Leah Mondesir Simmons and Eva-Arianna Baxter as young June and Jennifer. Photo: Courtesy of Jakub Kijowski/Focus Features

Such intergeneric movements are familiar territory for Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska, whose extraordinary 2015 feature film The temptation (a twisted adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The little Mermaid) was recently featured as a key text in the BFI’s impressively wide-ranging horror season In Dreams Are Monsters. While The temptation has been described as “a Polish New Wave mermaid horror musical”, The silent twin appears to be in a liminal space somewhere between Peter Jackson’s 1994 film Celestial creatures (another “real-life” story filled with fantastic foil à deux invention) and Notes on blindness, the remarkable 2016 lip sync docudrama from Peter Middleton and James Spinney. Like the former, it treats its subjects’ imagined worlds as tangible experiences—memories rather than dreams; like the latter, it blurs the formal line between performance and reportage in a way that is strangely compelling.

Central to the film’s spell are the mirrored performances of Wright and Lawrance. Sometimes I thought of Jeremy Irons’ double role as Beverly and Elliot Mantle in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) – an actor who inhabits apparently identical but subtly distinctive personas. Yet while Dead Ringers is increasingly a story of fluid personality transference, The silent twin let its protagonists flow together without diluting each other’s individuality. Even as they engage in a closely choreographed psychogenic fugue, Wright and Lawrance somehow manage to keep clear blue water between their respective roles.

While The silent twin is commendably adventurous, it’s not particularly accessible fare, and some viewers may lose patience with its claustrophobic intensity, just as many apparently lost their temper with the twins. But perhaps it is quite right that a film about an impenetrable couple should turn out to be somewhat impenetrable itself.

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