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The Silent Twins review – a surreal biopic that haunts like a waking dream

Letitia Wright stars in Agnieszka Smoczynska's stylish but deeply sad account of an infuriating, mind-boggling true injustice

Often, when a remarkable true story makes it into a feature film, we wonder how it hasn't been adapted before. That’s not a sentiment that will likely apply to The Silent Twins. Not because the story isn’t an incredible, or because the film it inspired isn’t good (it's great, in fact), but because you immediately understand why it’s taken so long to get it funded and distributed. This is a deeply, disturbingly sad tale of severe mental illness and institutional failings, a heavy and sometimes alienating story that demands patience and understanding, never aiming to be particularly accessible and all the better for it.

The twins of the title are June and Jennifer Gibbons (Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance, respectively), two Black girls who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Haverfordwest in Wales and developed an elective muteness, eventually only verbally communicating with one another. The Silent Twins is built around this co-dependency and its mostly bleak consequences, June and Jennifer going from pariahs at school to borderline shut-ins (still sharing their childhood bunkbeds at home) to an indefensibly harsh 11 year stint in Broadmoor, where they were essentially sent for the crime of being hard to understand.

Director Agnieszka Smoczyńska and writer Andrea Siegel don’t try to pinpoint the exact reason for the twins’ shared condition, but do hone in on the exacerbating factors, from school bullying to the boredom of life in suburban Wales, socially isolated due to both the run down milieu and the fact that there are no other Black kids in the neighbourhood. This omnipresent racism, whether it’s explicit slurs, racialised violence, or more insidious structures in the systems that control the twins’ lives, weighs very heavily, forcing them to retreat within themselves and then punishing them for doing so, sapping the joy from their lives. Very well shot as it is, most of The Silent Twins’s visuals are dank and cold (though always gripping to look at, never retreating to kitchen sink-y ‘realism’), livened up by the occasional pop of warm but disorienting colour when we enter June and Jennifer’s fantasies.

It’s both tragic and infuriating to see the world continue to fail these bright young sisters – both of them write novels, short stories, and plays – and Wright and Lawrance play the ensuing resentment and fear very well. Their chemistry is incredible; you truly believe in the sibling relationship, even as it’s pushed to its extremes – Smoczynska and Siegel grant the pair a sort of telepathic link in moments of crisis. June and Jennifer are basically each other’s entire world and they have to experience the entire range of human emotions through just one other person, running the gamut from overprotective love to vicious, violent hate.

Though there are some moments of levity – Smoczynska has a great eye for darkly funny visual gags – the sadness is pervasive, and the effect is crushing. Even in the slower, more dragged-out final third of the film, you feel the confused agony of the twins, helped substantially by an eerie score that frequently reminded me of Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s hauntingly alien work on Annihilation. It makes The Silent Twins prickle with unease and, combined with the surreal and disturbing stop-motion interludes that bring June and Jennifer’s stories to life, give it the feeling of a dream that’s not quite a nightmare, but one that still leaves you unsettled for a long time after you wake up.

The Silent Twins is released in UK cinemas on December 9.

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