The Silent Twins Review: A Moving, Creative Story About Individuality And Belonging [Cannes]

"The Silent Twins" tries to balance its many ideas, from mental health, to race, to creativity and sibling rivalry, without really saying anything that meaningful about any of them. Still, Agnieszka Smoczyńska directs the hell out of her third feature, which at its best is a brilliant love letter to misunderstood creativity and the ways we try to express ourselves.

The film focuses on the infamous case of June and Jennifer Gibbons, identical Black twins who moved to an all-white town in Wales. As if looking different and speaking a language no one understands (Bajan Creole) wasn't enough, the isolation, ostracizing, and bullying made the twins increasingly reserved. They went from just playing with each other to only speaking with each in cryptophasia, a language that no one but they could understand, all while their actions became fewer and more calculated, often mirroring each other.

Their story is quite well known in the U.K., and Smoczyńska and writer Andrea Seigel make an effort to throw aside the public's idea and perception of the twins from news and pop culture. They are never portrayed as weird, or quirky and their silence is not what defines them. Instead, it is a closed door that allowed them to communicate in other, more interesting ways.

Silent, but not quiet

You see, while the twins never spoke to others, they were quite creative and expressive — to each other. The film even starts with a fourth wall break, with the actresses who play the younger versions of the twins, Leah Mondesir-Simmonds and Eva-Arianna Baxter, narrating the opening credits and commenting on the cast — even themselves. This is part of a recreation of the real radio show "Radio Gibbons: The Living Facts of Life" the twins made just for themselves. After listening to their delightful commentary, the film cuts to a humble dormitory, not ugly or messy by any means, just a bit plain, as the twins' mother calls them out for dinner and we realize the twins have been sitting quietly and completely still the whole time.

Both sets of twins do a good job of portraying the characters with care and nuance, not shying away from their flaws, but also focusing on their wishes and desires. It is the adult actors, however, who make the film. Letitia Wright plays June, the older of the sisters, who feels like a caged bird in need of protection, the one with the bigger creative output. Tamara Lawrence, who plays Jennifer, gives the standout performance in "The Silent Twins," with subdued work that shows nothing on the surface, but hides a feeling of resentment and a desire for recognition beneath her stoic exterior.

A great use of genre and form

"The Silent Twins" is at its best when it just lets Smoczyńska bring the twins' world of imagination to life. Much in the way "The Lure" exuded style and confidence, using genre to tell a relatively simple story, "The Silent Twins" moves through different genres and even mediums to tell the Gibbons' story. Whether it's puppetry or stop-motion animation, the film replicates many of the sisters' unpublished short stories in a grim fashion, including a rather bleak one with a surprise connection to "Fullmetal Alchemist." The film even has a couple of musical numbers written by "The Lure" lyricist Zuzanna Wronska, which incorporate the twins' writing place the audience in the mind of the twins and understand just a little of how they saw the world.

Sadly, as creative as "The Silent Twins" is, and as much homework as the filmmakers clearly did in replicating the details of the story and the works of the twins, the film never fully says anything meaningful. Not about the real Gibbons sisters, not about race, not about mental health and its treatment in the U.K. It does explore sisterhood and the kind of paradoxical relationship where two people cannot live apart, but can't also live together. While many movies screening at Cannes are about looking for a place to belong, this is a rare film that is about the struggle of wanting individualism and also belonging. Though that is not enough to make the film great, Smoczyńska's directing is enough to make this a compelling and entertaining viewing.

/Film rating: 7 out of 10

"The Silent Twins" premiered at part of the Cannes Film Festival 2022.