Review: ‘The Silent Twins,’ starring Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance

September 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tamara Lawrance and Letitia Wright in “The Silent Twins” (Photo by Lukasz Bak/Focus Features)

“The Silent Twins”

Directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United Kingdom from 1973 to 1993, the dramatic film “The Silent Twins” features a cast of white and black characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Based on a true story, twin sisters with a co-dependent relationship speak to each other in their own secret language, and they refuse to talk to most other people in their lives, which are affected by the twins’ stints in mental health facilities and involvement with crime and drug abuse.

Culture Audience: “The Silent Twins” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching well-acted, cinematic versions of “strange but true” stories, but viewers should not expect “The Silent Twins” to be a traditional biopic.

Leah Mondesir Simmons and Eva-Arianna Baxter in “The Silent Twins” (Photo by Jakub Kijowski/Focus Features)

Whenever a movie is based on a true story, the filmmakers have a choice of which perspectives to focus on the most in the film. For “The Silent Twins,” the intention is to immerse viewers completely into the psyches of the real-life Jennifer Gibbons and June Gibbons, identical twins of Barbadian British heritage, who refused to speak to most people they met in their lives. Jennifer and June—who were born in 1963, and who spent most of their lives in Wales—have a tragic and bizarre story that is already familiar to many people, due to a lot of media attention, including news articles and TV documentaries.

Directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska and written by Andrea Seigel, “The Silent Twins” is based on journalist Marjorie Wallace’s 1986 non-fiction book of the same name. It’s not a conventional biopic about these real-life twins who refused to talk to most people they encountered. This uneven drama is a psychological kaleidoscope that’s worth watching for the fascinating performances by Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance. Wright has the role of the adult June (the more passive twin), and Lawrance has the role of the adult Jennifer (the more dominant twin).

“The Silent Twins” begins in 1973, by showing the twins at 10 years old. The childhood June (played by Leah Mondesir-Simmonds) and Jennifer (played by Eva-Arianna Baxter) are together in their bedroom while pretending to be radio broadcasters who are hosting their own talk show. It’s soon revealed that Jennifer and June have not spoken to their family members and most other people in years. The twins communicate with their family through handwritten notes and letters.

However, June and Jennifer speak to each other. In the movie, they talk quickly, often in hushed tones, and with unusual linguistic quirks, such as pronouncing the letter “s” as “sh.” In real life, the twins created their own patois way of communicating, which obviously would not work as well in a movie. In the movie, they speak English with a thick British-Caribbean accent, although some viewers might have a hard time understanding some of what is being said.

When June and Jennifer are together, they live in a fantasy world that they created. The twins have concocted imaginary characters with elaborate stories, which were often about fractured families, emotional pain and death. When they become teenagers, they write down and type out these stories, in efforts to become published authors. The movie shows that the twins continued to write into their 20s, but most of their work remained unpublished. Many of the twins’ real-life stories are incorporated into the movie as voiceover narration from the actresses portraying the twins, with stop-motion animation re-enacting the stories

The movie mentions that June and Jennifer are daughters of immigrants from the Barbados. Because the twins’ military father Aubrey (played by Treva Etienne) was an air traffic controller for the Royal Air Force, the family immigrated to England and then later moved to Wales. Aubrey’s homemaker wife Gloria (played by Nadine Marshall) is the parent who is depicted in the movie as being more disturbed than her spouse by the twins’ silence.

Jennifer and June were born in Yemen, because their father was stationed on a British military base in Yemen at the time. June and Jennifer have three siblings: older sister Greta (played by Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), born in 1957; older brother David (played by Hubert Sylla), born in 1959; and younger sister Rosie (played by Lara Nieradzik-Vasconcelos), born in 1967. (The movie makes Rosie look a lot younger than 6 years old in the 1973 scenes.)

As pre-teen children, Jennifer and June go to a school where they are the only black students. They are bullied mercilessly and treated like outcasts and freaks. For example, there’s a scene where a boy pins down Jennifer in the school yard, spits on her, and demands that she swallow his spit. This type of bullying just makes June and Jennifer even more withdrawn from everyone else.

The school’s teachers don’t know what to do with June and Jennifer, who are intelligent, but they refuse to speak to anyone in the school. The school’s administrators are thinking about transferring June and Jennifer to a special education school if the twins’ muteness continues. The twins’ parents don’t want that to happen because they know that June and Jennifer do not have any learning disabilities.

The family is referred to child psychologist Tim Thomas (played by Michael Smiley), who makes several efforts to have a communication breakthrough with June and Jennifer. For example, he leaves two tape recorders in a room when the twins are alone together. On one tape recorder that he leaves in play mode, he asks simple pre-recorded questions that he hopes the twin will answer. (The questions include “Do you have any hobbies?,” “How would you describe your personalities?” and “What’s your favorite subject?) The other tape recorder is in recording mode, in case the twins respond to the questions.

Not surprisingly, the twins don’t respond. And things get more strained in their family, as a frustrated, angry and hurt Greta tells the twins that she done with trying to communicate with them. She also yells at the twins that they’re an embarrassment to the family. At this point in 1973, Greta is married with a child and says that the twins’ deliberate silence is so upsetting, Greta doesn’t want to come to the parents’ house anymore when the twins are there. The twins act like they don’t really care.

The biggest question that the movie doesn’t really answer is why the twins stopped talking to other people at such a young age. (News coverage and books about June and Jennifer go into more details. June and Jennifer decided to stop talking to most other people because the twins made a secret pact to become deliberately mute.) In meetings with teachers, school administrators and therapists, Aubrey and Gloria insist that all of their children were raised with love and support and were never abused. And if the twins experienced something that triggered their muteness, well, they’re not talking about it.

When they become teenagers, Jennifer and June’s antisocial behavior turns into criminal activities. They both have a crush on a troublemaking American teen named Wayne (played by Jack Bandeira), whose family lives on the same military base. Jennifer and June break into Wayne’s house when no one is there and snoop through his things in his bedroom and eat some of the family’s food.

Wayne’s parents come home and find the twins. Instead of having the twins punished for this break-in, Wayne’s parents feel sorry for June and Jennifer because they think the twins are lonely and looking for friends. Wayne’s parents let the twins hang out with Wayne, who introduces them to smoking marijuana and sniffing glue. As depicted in the movie, Wayne is one of the few people who has conversations with June and Jennifer.

Wayne also gets sexually involved with June and Jennifer (they lose their virginity to him), but it’s not a romance. He’s using them both for sex and mind games, knowing that the twins are emotionally vulnerable and are falling in love with him. In real life, June and Jennifer did have this real-life relationship. But what the movie doesn’t show is that Wayne had three brothers—Lance, Jerry and Carl—and June and Jennifer were intimately involved with Wayne, Jerry and Carl at various times.

In the movie, June and Jennifer’s involvement with Wayne leads them down a more destructive path of drug abuse and violent crime. However, the movie makes it clear that Wayne cannot be completely blamed for the twins’ bad choices, because the twins were already very troubled by the time they met Wayne. As close as June and Jennifer were, they also had a love/hate relationship with each other that would result in them getting into brutal physical fights with each other.

At the same time, June and Jennifer were so co-dependent that they couldn’t function without each other. The movie shows that when the twins are forced to separate by psychiatrists, June and Jennifer essentially have nervous breakdowns. But when the twins reunite and start living together again, their downward spiral continues for other reasons that are public knowledge but won’t be revealed in this review, so as not to give away spoiler information for people who don’t know.

Because the “The Silent Twins” movie is told only from the perspectives of June and Jennifer, the movie offers fragments of June’s and Jennifer’s lives, to replicate the fragments of memories that these twins had during their strange and traumatic existence. At one point, when the twins are at their most obsessive with each other, it’s as if their family just fades away. In the early 1980s, June and Jennifer eventually meet Sunday Times journalist Marjorie Wallace (played by Jodhi May), who has a communications breakthrough with the twins.

The tone of “The Silent Twins” is meant to keep viewers slightly off-balance, as if to replicate how the twins probably felt out of sync with most people they encountered in life. This approach to telling Jennifer and June’s story might be less interesting to watch if not for the performances of Wright and Lawrance. Aside from their skillful use of facial expressions and body language to portray these silent sisters, Wright and Lawrence (who obviously don’t look like identical twins) are also convincing in portraying twins who become so delusional, they began to think that they are the same person.

However, the twins show definite personality traits that set them apart from each other. Jennifer is the more mean-spirited of the twins, but she’s also the more talented and more prolific writer. The twins seem to be at their happiest when they’re creating stories. When they get a typewriter and are later accepted into a mail-in creative writing program, they’re ecstatic.

But the happiness in the twins’ lives turns out to be fleeting. Their drug abuse and continued muteness get in the way of the twins becoming healthy, fully functioning adults. What the movie accomplishes is showing that although the twins’ silence seemed like they were at war with the outside world, the twins were really at war with themselves and felt trapped together to the point of no return.

Focus Features released “The Silent Twins” in select U.S. cinemas on September 16, 2022.

Review: ‘Censor’ (2021), starring Niamh Algar

June 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Niamh Algar in “Censor” (Photo by Maria Lax/Magnet Releasing)

“Censor” (2021)

Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond

Culture Representation: Taking place in early 1980s England, the horror film “Censor” features a predominantly white cast (with a few black people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman who works as a movie censor begins experiencing nightmarish visions related to a tragedy from her past. 

Culture Audience: “Censor” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in horror films that put more emphasis on creating unsettling atmospheres than providing easy answers.

Niamh Algar in “Censor” (Photo by Maria Lax/Magnet Releasing)

“Censor” is the type of horror movie that won’t satisfy people who are looking for a predictable ending, but it succeeds in immersing viewers into the psychological terror of a very disturbed mind. The movie has plenty of gory and bloody murder scenes, but what many viewers might find more frightening is being taken into a world where fact and fantasy are constantly blurred and play tricks on people’s sense of reality. Niamh Algar’s riveting performance in “Censor” elevates the movie’s tendency to be repetitive, which could have dragged down the story if not for Algar’s commendable acting.

Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond, “Censor” is her feature-film directorial debut, based on Bailey-Bond’s short film “Nasty.” Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher co-wrote the screenplay for “Censor,” which takes place in early 1980s England, when the VHS video boom caused an increase in direct-to-video releases that could bypass the censors. Horror movies in particular benefited from the direct-to-video business model. And in England, these uncensored films became known as “video nasties.”

“Censor” takes place during a time when the British Board of Film Censors (which changed its name to the British Board of Film Classification in 1984) was adapting to the increasing distribution of videotapes sold directly to consumers as a new format for the movie industry. The BBFC, which is a non-governmental group founded by the film industry, works in a way that’s similar to the Motion Picture Association of America, by classifying or rating films, based on the minimum age that would be deemed appropriate to see those films.

In “Censor,” Algar portrays Enid Baines, a prim and proper spinster in her 30s who works for the BBFC. She takes her job very seriously and is a stickler for details. In an opening scene of the “Censor,” she has a conversation with her condescending co-worker Sanderson (played by Nicholas Burns) about a scene they watched in a horror movie that’s being evaluated for a rating classification.

Enid says to Sanderson, “The decapitation is ridiculous. It’s the eye gouging. It’s too realistic. Plus, I was trying to see who dragged her away.” Sanderson replies, “Does it matter? … I appreciate you analyzing this with clear precision, Enid. But someone perhaps got out of the cautious side of the bed this morning.”

Enid ignores Sanderson’s attempt to belittle her as uptight. Fortunately, not all of her co-workers are disrespectful. Enid also works closely with matronly Anne (played by Clare Perkins) and easygoing Perkins (played by Danny Lee Wynter), who both express concerns to Enid about her emotional well-being if it looks like she’s particularly disturbed by any of the violent content that she has to screen for her job. Enid experiences sexual harassment from a movie producer named Doug Smart (played by Michael Smiley) when he makes rude and sexist comments to her while he visiting in the office.

“Censor” doesn’t really show much of Enid’s home life, because viewers will get the impression that her life revolves around her work. However, there’s a tragedy from Enid’s past that has been haunting her. And a decision that her parents have made about this tragedy seems to set Enid off on a downward spiral of madness.

One day, Enid’s parents June Baines (played by Clare Holman) and George Baines (played by Andrew Havill) invite her to dinner at a restaurant to tell her some important news: They have decided to officially declare their missing daughter Lucy as dead. Lucy, who was Enid’s younger sister, disappeared in the forest of Chorleywood (a village in England), in 1958, when Lucy was 7 years old. Enid was about 12 or 13 at the time, and she was with Lucy on the day that Lucy disappeared. At the time, Lucy and Enid were living with their parents in Brimstead, Middlesex.

Enid has vague and fractured memories of Lucy’s disappearance. Because she could never fully remember what happened when Lucy disappeared, it has added to the tremendous guilt that Enid has felt ever since. Enid disagrees with her parents’ decision to declare that Lucy is dead, because Enid thinks there’s still a possibility that Lucy could still be alive. Enid also thinks that Lucy was kidnapped.

However, Lucy’s death certificate has already been made official. When Enid’s parents show Enid the death certificate, Enid has a hard time looking at it. Enid’s mother June tries to change the subject and asks Enid if she’s recently seen any good movies to recommend. Enid somberly explains to her mother what Enid’s job is: “It’s not entertainment, mum. I do it to protect people.”

The rising numbers of “video nasties” have created a backlash from certain people in the United Kingdom who want to blame these horror movies on an increase in crime. At the time, the U.K. (under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) was experiencing an economic recession and high unemployment, which is often linked to an increase in crime, but people often want to scapegoat violent movies and TV as the reason. Enid is about to experience this backlash firsthand.

One day, Enid and Sanderson are called into the office of their boss Fraser (played by Victor Franklin), who nervously tells them about a phone call that he got that day from a journalist doing a story about a high-profile murder case. A man was recently arrested for murdering his wife, eating her face, and then shooting and killing their two children. This disturbing crime is eerily similar to a scene from a horror movie titled “Derangement,” and the journalist is linking these murders to the movie. And just like in “Derangement,” the murderer claims to have no memory of committing the crime. The media gave him the nickname the Amnesiac Killer.

Fraser is unnerved because somehow, the journalist knew that Enid and Sanderson were the two censors who evaluated “Derangement” before giving it a rating. Fraser demands a complete internal investigation and for Enid and Sanderson to give him a step-by-step analysis to explain why they decided to allow “Derangement” to be approved for release. Fraser also sternly lectures Enid and Sanderson that if they have any doubts about the content that they evaluate, they should not approve it and ask for edits or reject the movie altogether.

While all of this drama is going on in Enid’s job and personal life, she and Perkins watch a movie that’s up for evaluation. It’s an untitled film from a director called Frederick North. And what Enid sees in the movie seems to push her off the deep end into an abyss of emotional despair. What follows for the rest of “Censor” are flashbacks or hallucinations about what might or might not have happened when Enid and Lucy were in the woods all those years ago.

There’s a tall, menacing hulk—who has the name Beastman (played by Guillaume Delaunay) in the film credits—who is shown lurking in the woods and enticing a young Lucy into his remote house. (Beau Gadsdon plays a young Enid in these flashbacks.) There’s a horror movie called “Asunder” that Enid gets from a video store that offers more pieces to this mind-bending puzzle. An actress named Alice Lee (played by Sophia La Porta) is the star of “Asunder,” and Enid becomes obsessed with her because she fears that Alice is in danger.

One of the more effective aspects of “Censor” is how cinematographer Annika Summerson contrasts the dull and drab hues of Enid’s everyday life with the psychedelic nightmarish hues of Enid’s visions that take place in the forest. If it isn’t obvious to viewers during the movie, it’s made very clear at the end of the film that the forest is a metaphor for Enid’s mind. And getting trapped there is an experience that is not for the faint of heart.

Magnet Releasing released “Censor” in select U.S. cinemas on June 11, 2021, and on digital and VOD on June 18, 2021.

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