Cannes: The truth is so horrific that you wonder why the last two hours have been so sluggish.
At first glance, it might seem odd that experimental Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska (“The Lure,” “Fugue”) chose a social justice drama for her third film about a pair of black British twins and amateur novelists who are charged with petty crimes are imprisoned. But the filmmaker’s esoteric style — The Lure was a gory, lesbian take on The Little Mermaid — makes more sense when we meet June Gibbons (Letitia Wright) and her sister, Jennifer (Tamara Lawrence). As identical twins born 10 minutes apart, June and Jennifer invent an entire language just for each other – and are distraught when someone else tries to interrupt their fun. Smoczyńska illustrates the eccentric stories they tell each other with stop-motion puppets, musical montages and, in an Andy Warhol-inspired set piece, a deep Pepsi pool lapping a living room.
Where The Silent Twins fails, however, is in marrying that childish expressionism with the stark grimness of real-life gibbons. A tale of structural racism, the abuse of the mentally ill and the appalling conditions in Britain’s prisons, June’s and Jennifer’s astonishingly rash incarcerations are presented with a frustrating frivolity clearly inherited from Smoczyńska’s upbeat opening speech. “The Silent Twins” never gets off the (understandably) light note it opens on, to the annoying detriment of its meatier post-halftime storyline. This makes for something less conventional than the history of the gibbons might have prompted. It also prevents “The Silent Twins” from taking a real hit.
A simple example of this is betting. That the Gibbons were the only black family in Haverfordwest, their small, isolated town in South Wales, is not even mentioned. The teachers’ strangely aggressive questions about the girls’ mental states miss the racist subtext at play. Smoczyńska obviously doesn’t care about that. Child actors Leah Mondesir Simmons and Eva-Arianna Baxter are unforgettable as June and Jennifer respectively in grade school, but their roles are far too lively, especially when we know what’s really going on beneath the surface. Wright and Lawrence continue to act as adult girls, though the couple’s play begins to falter around the ages of about 17 to 30. Another instance of this frustrating inauthenticity is the portrayal of Haverfordwest, which never appears like a real place. Much of The Silent Twins was filmed in Poland, and while that’s not particularly obvious, it’s clear enough that not very much of it was filmed in Wales. Smoczyńska and cinematographer Jakub Kijowski do their best to create a cohesive hometown for the Gibbons girls, but it never seems more than a bad impression of one.
And if The Silent Twins is let down by some respectably ambitious bets that don’t pay off, it’s also weakened by a handful of boring tropes. Sunday Times journalist Marjorie Wallace, whose 1986 book of the same name forms the basis of this film, is played by Jodhi May in a number of key scenes. But the figure is entirely two-dimensional, a “Bohemian Rhapsody”-style cardboard cutout of a real person who’s just there to form the numbers. The same goes for a courtroom scene where the twins are convicted of minor crimes and sentenced to indefinite internment at Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital. From the caricatured casting decisions to the cheap sets and simple costumes, everything looks like a sequence from a Mel Brooks satire, but The Silent Twins is no joke.
Ultimately, these tonal errors determine Smoczyńska’s film. Just as overprescribing sedatives numbs the twins to pain – and progress – so “The Silent Twins” is insanely lifeless on issues meant to provoke anger. When words appear on screen at the end of the film that explain more about the lives of the Gibbons sisters, the truth is so chilling that one wonders why the last two hours have been so sluggish. It doesn’t help that Wright and Lawrence play the couple with so little outward impact that it becomes alienating. The young versions of the sisters are infinitely more energetic and exciting, and it’s odd to see that lag as the film jumps forward a few years.
Still, there are some artistic choices worth celebrating. The production design, especially when used to succinctly tell the stories of the Gibbons’ wacky self-published books, is garish and tasteless. Jack Bandeira as Wayne, a local American teenager who becomes the target of both sisters’ romantic fixations, is a beautiful characterization that’s well communicated. Too bad it’s too difficult for The Silent Twins to tell the true story of the gibbons, because there are really promising signs. Rumored to be a jukebox sci-fi musical inspired by the songs of David Bowie, Smoczyńska’s next film continues to deserve great anticipation. The success of the director’s new project may be related to an effective autopsy of this project.
The Silent Twins premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It was acquired by Focus Features for US distribution.
https://www.indiewire.com/2022/05/the-silent-twins-review-1234728522/ ‘The Silent Twins’ review: Letitia Wright’s Cannes drama fails