Studios: Hire horror filmmakers to direct your dreary based-on-a-shocking-true-crime sludge. It’s the fastest way to make those projects interesting, even if it won’t guarantee they’ll be good. Imagine if, for instance, Spotlight replaced Tom McCarthy with Tobe Hooper. Sounds like an infinitely better film, right?
Focus Features had the right idea hiring Agnieszka Smoczynska for The Silent Twins, adapted from journalist Marjorie Wallace’s same-named book about twins June and Jennifer Gibbons. Growing up in a community they felt rejected by, June and Jennifer retreated from the world at large, including their own family, and chose to communicate only with each other. Theirs is an engrossing story, otherworldly on the page, stranger than most fiction, and a natural fit for genre cinema despite that whole pesky “true” detail.
The problem is that Smoczynska brings her flare in fullest possible force, and this is only enough to steer The Silent Twins away from tedium. Given that films like it tend so often to be tedious, this qualifies as recommendation: Smoczynska has a point of view and a personal sense of style, and neither are forbidden from influencing The Silent Twins’ production. But as talented as she is, the sound of her hands banging against the other side of the screen can be heard through most of the film’s 113 minutes. The material’s particulars give Smoczynska ample opportunity to show off her creativity, but those same particulars hold her creativity in a cage she can’t break out of.
That makes The Silent Twins a singularly frustrating experience. When Smoczynska gets to make an Agnieszka Smoczynska film, it’s engrossing. When she only gets as far as making a standard biopic, it’s a letdown, though in letdown mode, it’s still a treat that she got called up at all. The Silent Twins’ combination of innate unease and bonded sibling protagonists feels tailor-made to fit Smoczynska’s directorial credentials; her best-known film, 2015’s The Lure, likewise fixates on sisters living as outsiders, and concerns itself with loss of voice as a subtheme. The difference is that The Lure is about man-eating mermaids, and The Silent Twins is decidedly not.
Things start promisingly enough, with a stop-motion credits sequence narrated by Leah Mondesir-Simmonds and Eva-Arianna Baxter, who respectively play June and Jennifer in girlhood. After rattling off the cast names, including their own, with a giggle, The Silent Twins observes the pair hosting a make-believe radio show, bathed in warm, golden light until the moment their mom, Gloria (Nadine Marshall), busts in on their tune. Immediately, the brilliant color palette reverts to drab, cloudy blue. Their imaginative bubble pops. Dismal everyday life rears its uneventful head. So it goes. June and Jennifer are so entrenched in one another, and so intransigent about opening up to outsiders, that when they’re in the company of others they may as well be dead. They’re like possums. They play dead. It’s how they cope.
“Cope” might be generous, especially as the sisters reach their teen years, when June is played by Letitia Wright and Jennifer is played by Tamara Lawrance. But that idea of living death is so fascinating that The Silent Twins’ insistence on letting it go by unexplored feels shameful. Smoczynska has fun interpreting their interior lives through dream sequences, additional interstitial stop-motion and creepy DIY effects, including a deeply unsettling scene where one of the twins’ hand-made dolls—a doctor bedecked in a white lab coat—appears in man-sized form once they’ve been admitted to Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital. Here, The Silent Twins marries with horror in the most blatant terms, though the herky-jerky way the girls mirror each other’s actions recalls the Tethered in Jordan Peele’s Us, too.
But oh, that pesky matter of “reality” and its inconvenient maintenance. Smoczynska dutifully gives the audience the facts, but the facts are presented with practically no analysis. Little effort is made in either Smoczynska’s direction or Andrea Seigel’s script to consider the factors that informed June and Jennifer’s cryptophasia, though in fairness to Seigel and Smoczynska, that’s probably a Sisyphean chore. If that’s the case, The Silent Twins would seem to benefit by departing from the “real” story and its players as much as possible, most of all Wallace (Jodhi May) herself, who shows up just in the nick of time to win the movie’s “white savior” award.
There’s solace to take in the realization that in another director’s hands, The Silent Twins would have been completely standardized, absent the redeeming artistic value invested in the film by Smoczynska’s presence. But the film doesn’t capitalize on her vision. The Gibbons’ insularity is fundamental to their identity. The Silent Twins could have leaned more into that identity, and thus into Smoczynska’s, for the telling of their tragedy. She sees the fundamental disturbance in the Gibbons’ psyches, and brings it to The Silent Twins’ surface with her aesthetic flourishes. But that’s where the exploration ends: The surface.
Director: Agnieszka Smoczynska
Writer: Andrea Seigel
Starring: Letitia Wright, Tamara Lawrance, Nadine Marshall, Treva Etienne, Michael Smiley, Jodhi May
Release Date: September 15, 2022
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.