Double Image: The Silent Twins on film

❉ Graham Williamson compares and contrasts two films about June and Jennifer Gibbons.

“Watching both films today, you’re very aware that June and Jennifer’s parents are members of that same Windrush generation who have been so abysmally treated by modern British governments. Yet for all the two films’ humanity, righteous anger and raw, impassioned performances, this thread is never fully unravelled.”

Aptly for a story about twins, there’s two films about the strange case of June and Jennifer Gibbons. Born in 1963 to Barbadian parents, the Gibbons sisters suffered racism and ostracisation as the only Black children in their Welsh town. Eventually they simply refused to talk to others, developing an increasingly elaborate private language to keep their secrets.

The Gibbons sisters were brought to public attention by the journalist Marjorie Wallace, who found them in Broadmoor psychiatric hospital following a conviction for arson. Wallace is played by Jodhi May in the 2022 film The Silent Twins, directed by Polish film-maker Agnieszka Smoczyńka. For all she isn’t on screen in the other one – a BBC Screen Two production directed by Jon Amiel – she wrote the script, and the opening titles give her the proprietary credit (“by Marjorie Wallace”) rather than Amiel.

This is to be expected from Screen Two, a strand which continued the writer-driven ethos of The Wednesday Play and Armchair Theatre. Smoczyńka’s film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, the latest film from a promising director whose debut feature – 2015’s The Lure – had been released as part of the Criterion Collection.

Part of the difference between the two films, then, is the difference between a now-extinct style of writer-led television plays and the endangered world of arthouse cinema. There’s no question that Smoczyńka’s film is the more visually flamboyant, with ragged, tactile stop-motion animation by Barbara Rupik bringing the twins’ short stories and novels to life. Both films feature a scene where the twins imagine Broadmoor as something akin to a luxury hotel, a scene which sets up a devastating disillusionment when they actually get there. In Amiel’s film, though, this fatally naive hope is depicted through expressive close-ups of the lead actors Shirley and Sharon Parker. In Smoczyńka’s film, it’s the springboard for an extended Busby Berkeley-style musical number.

Yet Amiel is no lightweight visually. In the same year as The Silent Twins, he also directed Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, arguably the most stylistically complex series ever shown on British television. The Silent Twins is not as ambitious nor as expensive, but it still has sequences that are primarily memorable for their visuals: the peaceful, sunny glade where one sister tries to drown the other, the pastel-coloured street where the young Gibbons sisters traipse behind their mother.

If these sequences become less frequent as the film goes on, this is because of a difference in the two films’ purposes. Amiel’s film, like Wallace’s book, is ultimately a piece of campaigning journalism rather than an auteur piece. It aired while the sisters were still incarcerated in Broadmoor, and it ends with captions designed to reinforce this sense of injustice. June and Jennifer, we are told, have stopped writing stories since they were imprisoned.

It’s a sad ending, but it’s nothing compared to what happened after Amiel’s film aired. After years of campaigning, the sisters were transferred to a more open clinic in 1993, whereupon Jennifer immediately died. The cause of death was myocarditis, but this condition is usually triggered by something – a virus, a parasite, a poison – and nobody could find any such thing in Jennifer’s system.

The death was a mystery to everyone except June. The Gibbons sisters had long agreed that they could only live a normal life if one of them died. Wallace mentioned this belief in her book, citing it as a reason why their bond was so impenetrable. After Jennifer’s death, it took on a new significance, with June believing her sister had willingly given up her life so she could be free. Strange as it is, it is the only proffered explanation for what happened to Jennifer Gibbons.

The 2022 film incorporates this event, which allows for a particularly powerful performance from star and producer Letitia Wright as June. Knowing that this, rather than the sisters’ continued incarceration, is the end of the story dictates the shape of Smoczyńka’s film, particularly in those parts where it differs from Amiel’s. Amiel’s film is more focused on the ways the sisters’ bond can be fractious, even violent, whereas Smoczyńka only delves fully into this once the sisters are incarcerated. Before that, while there are certainly moments where Wright and Tamara Lawrence (as Jennifer) disagree, it feels closer to standard teenage jealousy over boys.

There is also some envy over the publication of June’s novel, The Pepsi-Cola Addict, from the unpublished Jennifer. As an art film-maker, it’s perhaps to be expected that Smoczyńka focuses more on the sisters as artists, beginning inside one of their fantasies and using Jennifer’s story The Pugilist as a running parallel narrative. I, personally, loved this element, but it might be why some found Smoczyńka’s The Silent Twins hard to connect with. Amiel’s film, by contrast, begins by looking at the sisters’ world from the outside in. The first time we see them, they’re the kind of mute doppelgängers who’d fit into a Shining-style horror film. Then, having acknowledged the dehumanising way the outside world sees them, the film begins sensitively exploring the reasons for their behaviour.

Given this, it’s strange that the one flaw the two films have in common have is a reluctance to fully address the racism the girls suffered. It’s particularly odd in the newer film, given that Letitia Wright is noted for socially conscious work at both a blockbuster (Black Panther) and an independent (Aisha) level. Watching both films today, you’re very aware that June and Jennifer’s parents are members of that same Windrush generation who have been so abysmally treated by modern British governments. Yet for all the two films’ humanity, righteous anger and raw, impassioned performances, this thread is never fully unravelled.

Both are, ultimately, extremely satisfying examples of their kind. Amiel’s film is a docudrama about institutional cruelty that can stand alongside Alan Clarke’s defining television plays on this subject, while Smoczyńka’s work is a wildly imaginative, surreal art film of the kind that rarely gets made these days, and one which is heartbreaking to boot. Amiel’s film is remembered to this day by those lucky enough to have caught the original broadcast, while Smoczyńka’s will surely grow in stature over the years.

Neither will be the final word on the Gibbons sisters, but they don’t need to be. Those, like me, who grew up in between Amiel and Smoczyńka’s takes on this story will have learned about June and Jennifer Gibbons from the Manic Street Preachers’ 1998 hit Tsunami. They’ve also been the subject of songs by Angeline Morrison and Luke Haines, poems by Lucie Brock-Broido, essays by Hinton Als and Oliver Sacks, stage plays and more. Most of all, we have the once-silent, once-silenced sisters’ own words. June has an Instagram page, assisted by her friend David Tibet of Current 93, and her novel The Pepsi-Cola Addict will be republished in paperback this year by Strange Attractor Press.

❉ ‘Pepsi-Cola Addict’ by June-Alison Gibbons, David Tibet is published by Strange Attractor Press on 13 June 2023.

❉ ‘The Silent Twins’ is available on Blu-ray from Universal, BBFC Cert 18. Run time: 113 min. Click here to buy (Amazon Affiliate Link).

❉ Graham Williamson (he/him) is a writer and film-maker from Middlesbrough who runs the Pop Screen podcast for movies either starring or about pop stars. His writing has appeared in The Geek Show, Horrified and Byline Times. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd for Bowie hot takes.

Become a patron at Patreon!

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.