Any number of directors could have shot Andrea Seigel’s straightforwardly moving screenplay for “The Silent Twins” and turned out a straightforwardly moving film in the process. It’s hard to imagine any of those movies looking, sounding or feeling quite like the one Agnieszka Smoczyńska has made, however. Based on the desperately sad true story of two intensely connected Black twin sisters failed by Britain’s educational, legal and mental health services in the ’70s and ’80s, this brazen, tear-your-heart-out drama gets the full benefit of the Polish filmmaker’s singular imagination. Layering one wild formal flourish over another — from macabre stop-motion animation to elaborately choreographed musical fantasies — to channel the inner lives of two young women who communicated only with each other, keeping the rest of the world outside their circle, it’s a swing for the fences that sometimes, almost by design, spins out of control.
Whenever that happens, though, an extraordinary pair of performances — one might even call it one paired performance — by Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance brings “The Silent Twins” down to hard, cold earth. June and Jennifer Gibbons were identical twins; Wright and Lawrance, needless to say, are not, though the actors’ mutually intuitive body language and shared, synchronized verbal code-switching make you believe otherwise, overriding any other aspects of this U.K.-Polish co-production that ring less than entirely true. “Black Panther” star Wright’s top billing, in particular, will drive distributor interest toward a film that’ll inevitably split opinion following its Cannes premiere in Un Certain Regard, but ought to connect with a devoted, Kleenex-carrying audience in arthouses.
The film opens directly in the mutual headspace of the twins, beautifully played as children by Leah Mondesir-Simmonds and Eva-Arianna Baxter, as they host an imaginary radio show together. Gliding wittily between topics and punchlines, June and Jennifer speak in their heads with the casual, fluent patter they wish they could bring to the outside world. Cut to reality, as DP Jakub Kijowski’s palette shifts from floaty golds to damp, chilly blues, and they speak to each other in strained, effortful whispers, and only when they’re alone; should someone else be in the room, they cannot or will not speak at all. Their Barbadian immigrant parents (Nadine Marshall and Treva Etienne) are at a loss to explain the silence; they talked cheerfully as babies, their mother says, “and then less and less.”
In the small Welsh town of Haverfordwest, June and Jennifer are routinely subjected to playground bullying and racist abuse. After they switch to a school for children with learning difficulties, kindly therapist Tim Thomas (Michael Smiley) can still do nothing to draw the girls out of their psychological bubble; splitting them up, furthermore, proves detrimental to their mental health. Cut to early adulthood, and June (Wright) and Jennifer (Lawrance) have been effectively rejected by formal education, but have nonetheless retreated into highly creative isolation: In the cramped twin bedroom where they spend almost all their time, they concoct elaborately fantastical stories, playing them out with handmade puppets, or putting them to paper on a single shared typewriter.
Together, they dream of being published authors — tellingly, a way of communicating with others that requires no speech — though after a run of publishers’ rejections, they conclude that their writing is too insular, and resolve to make contact with the outside world. The impulse combines with their desire for Wayne (Jack Bandeira), a cruel, jockish former classmate; as they both lose their virginity to him, blossom-filled fantasies of rosy romantic ecstasy give way bluntly to rough, unnurturing sex in a cold garage, not the first or last time that editor Agnieszka Glinska cuts abruptly and devastatingly between the twins’ inner and outer lives.
Their coming of age has some positive effects — with Wayne, they can finally converse, albeit haltingly, with a third person — but more drastically destabilizing ones. A joint run of petty criminal activity sees them sentenced to an indefinite spell in Britain’s notorious Broadmoor Hospital, a harsh, high-security psychiatric facility where the twins’ emotional and intellectual development atrophies as months turn into years. (It’s altogether a far cry from the airbrushed, Busby Berkeley-style synchronized-swimming number that the young women envision when Broadmoor is first pitched to them as a kind of luxury spa.) Eventually, Sunday Times journalist Marjorie Wallace (Jodhi May), from whose bestselling book the script is adapted, latches onto their story and campaigns for their liberation, but even then, the story and filmmaking alike resist any glib inspirational arc.
For Smoczyńska, “The Silent Twins” represents a comparatively mainstream crossover for an aesthetic that first popped in her kooky, kinky, Sundance-premiered adult mermaid tale “The Lure,” before acquiring an exquisite level of refinement in her haunting sophomore feature “Fugue,” which played in Cannes Critics’ Week four years ago, but never got the attention it merited. Less disciplined than the latter but more narratively grounded than the former, the directoe’s third feature proves a fitting vehicle for her brand of sly, lo-fi surrealism, detailing as it does a relationship that found expression, but also escape, in freely eccentric fictions and craftsy flights of fancy.
The director will rarely choose a generically maudlin montage or magic-hour dream sequence when a gnarled claymation vision of a canine heart transplant will do: A closing credit informs us that the Gibbons’ own writing and artwork informs much of the onscreen imagery and poetry here. Still, some of the film’s most ambitious set pieces teeter over into outright kitsch, not least via a couple of original songs that articulate the twins’ emotions all too literally. That’s hardly necessary when Wright and Lawrance (building on an impressive breakthrough turn in last year’s indie horror “Kindred”) have those written so intricately into their performances, whether physically twisting and straining with pent-up expression or exploding into sudden, frightening bouts of violence against each other, brutalizing each other’s bodies as if they’re theirs to wound. In Smoczyńska’s curious, careering, unshakeable wallop of a film, no touch is lightly felt, and no hard-fought word taken for granted.