Here is a really heartfelt, absorbing new film telling the true story of June and Jennifer Gibbons: the “silent twins”, young women of colour who grew up in Haverfordwest in Wales communicating with no one but each other. They were effectively abandoned by the school and care systems but wrote reams of intensely imaginative poems and stories, with June even self-publishing a novel. It gained them a reputation as authentic outsider artists when, in 1981, the twins were committed to Broadmoor hospital for arson and theft. Their case was taken by investigative journalist and mental health campaigner Marjorie Wallace.
Their story has had a number of stage and screen treatments, and now screenwriter Andrea Seigel has adapted Wallace’s book about the case and Polish film-maker Agnieszka Smoczyńska directs in this UK-Polish co-production. Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance are excellent as the grownup June and Jennifer, two young women who withdraw into a vivid world of their own – to the profound dismay of their parents and intense irritation of their siblings, for whom June and Jennifer suck all the oxygen out of their young lives. When they speak it is with odd inflections, a lisp or slur that makes them sound almost Dutch. Jodhi May has a cameo as Wallace.
Seigel and Smoczyńska show that the twins had a need for love, for people who understood and respected their shared jokes and private existence-system. But they could be extremely annoying and difficult and scary, and their frustration ended in strange criminal adventures which were possibly existential acts, or quasi-artistic acts of transgression and desperate self-expression; the acts of people who have the ambitions and obsessiveness of artists and even the potential talent of artists, but not the social background that would encourage artistry. I loved and sympathised with the twins’ ecstatic excitement on buying their very own typewriter – that intricate, clatteringly percussive thing of beauty which is more exotic than any laptop and creates dizzyingly perfect typescript – the first step to a writer’s self-belief.
The film looks (subtly) at the role of race and gender in the way the Gibbons sisters were written off by the system and the courts that condemned them to an open-ended incarceration in grisly Broadmoor. And Smoczyńska illustrates their fantasy world with stop-motion puppet animation sequences that manage to convey the strangeness and loneliness of their imaginings without resorting to horror.
It is tempting to compare this movie to Peter Jackson’s 1994 drama Heavenly Creatures, about the true story of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, best friends who withdrew into a fantasy world and committed murder. But the Gibbons twins were not violent and their fantasy world is actually more advanced and evolved. June did, after all, have the chutzpah to get published, albeit with her own money. (It was good enough for Jane Austen.) This is an engrossing, well-acted story – disturbing but also tender and sad.
• The Silent Twins screened at the Cannes film festival.