The first moments of The Silent Twins play like Fahrenheit 451 if it were directed by 10-year-old girls. Like the title sequence in that film, The Silent Twins opens with their omniscient voices reading out the movie's credits, narrating over stop-motion animation of scribbled notes and a pair of purple felt parrots trapped inside a gilded cage. "And introducing us: Eva-Arianna Baxter and Leah Mondesir-Simmonds!" the actresses giggle, before singing out the title in unison.
"I love opening titles," Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska tells A.frame, noting that the idea to do the sequence in such a meta fashion came late in the process. "It was very important to me, because it set the tone of the movie. I had to convince my producers that we needed this opening titles, because I wanted to show that they were very clever and that you have this fantasy world. You also establish that there are many layers of the point of view of the story."
Based on the book of the same name by journalist Marjorie Wallace, The Silent Twins tells the true story of June and Jennifer Gibbons (played by Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance, respectively, with Baxter and Mondesir-Simmonds portraying the twins as children), whose trauma as the only Black kids growing up in a small Welsh town in the 1970s led them to withdraw from the outside world and only communicate with one another. But alone together in their bedroom, they created an imaginary world of their own, brought to life onscreen through flourishes of technicolor style.
"From the very beginning, when Aga gave me the script, I was like, 'What's your vision?'" recalls Wright, who was also a producer on the movie. "She showed me some of the ways in which she wanted the cinematography to complement the acting. She has a great cinematographer, Jakub [Kijowski], that she's worked with before. And he's an artist genius. So, her vision was very clear from the beginning and she needed a team to execute it. And she has a great team."
By the age of eight, the twins stopped communicating with the outside world altogether. All the while, they were creating a trove of imaginative works: stuffed dolls they made as children to act out elaborate soap operas; their make-believe radio show, titled Radio Gibbons: The Living Facts of Life; June's pulpy novel, Pepsi-Cola Addict; and Jennifer's unpublished story, The Pugilist, about a physician who saves his newborn's life by performing a heart transplant with the family dog.
Those works are infused throughout The Silent Twins. "We started to talk about these two separate worlds," Smoczyńska explains. "Their imaginary inner world and then the ordinary world, and we really wanted to juxtapose these two worlds." That is, until they begin to bleed together: The twins step out of their desaturated reality and dance together in an underground tunnel as neon lights glow blue and purple. Flowers bloom while Jennifer loses her virginity in the backseat of a muscle car. June and Jennifer are engulfed in flames as they stare, grinning at their reflections, in a mirror.
When the twins are given an indefinite sentence at the maximum-security Broadmoor psychiatric hospital at age 19, June concocts a fantasia of what their experience will be: Now a famous author, June marries her Prince Charming, wearing Princess Di's wedding gown as a parrot-headed priest performs the ceremony against a backdrop of purple clouds. The vision becomes a fusion of Barbara Rupik's stop-motion puppets and the heightened visual language established by Kijowski.
"That was such a fun day," Wright says. "At the time of them being more adventurous and going out and dating, Princess Diana was getting married to Charles, and they were watching the videos and obsessing over Diana. We picked out moments in which the twins would write about what they observed in their lives, and Aga found it to be an interesting take on June's imagination of wanting to be married and wanting a family. So, that dress was handmade, Diana-style, and it got sent to us in Poland. It was a huge day. I felt like I was getting married.
"It's safe to say that June is really proud that her stories, that her sister's stories, are in this movie."
The Silent Twins is not an arthouse biopic for the sake of being artsy, but a film driven by the twins' own artistic vision. (Their writing was also interpolated into three original songs, written by Zuzanna Wrońska.) June and Jennifer retreated into themselves because of the merciless bullying and systemic racism they experienced, silencing themselves to everyone but each other, before being institutionalized for almost 12 years at Broadmoor. Jennifer died in 1993 and June lives a private life today. The movie not only tells the story of their circumstances, but tells it in a way that finally shares their creativity with the world.
"I remember when I first read the story, I found them very extraordinary as artists," Smoczyńska reflects. "I wanted just to adapt their work to the movie, in terms of them as artists but also of them as human beings. That's what moved me and what was very heartbreaking to me, that they were extraordinary and ordinary at the same time. They wanted to have love. They wanted to have success. They wanted to be artists. They wanted to be heard. I wanted to pay tribute to them with Letitia and Tamara."
For her part, Wright says, "It's like a rebirth of their creativity. It means so much to me. And I don't want to share too much, but it's safe to say that June is really proud that her stories, that her sister's stories, are in this movie. It's liberating for her to know that we have celebrated them in a way that wasn't done before. That was the best review."