“The Silent Twins” is a strange movie. That strangeness is unrelated to how unusual its based-on-fact story is. June and Jennifer Gibbons were the daughters of Barbadian immigrants to Britain. Growing up in the ‘70s, the sisters communicated only with each other. Their increasingly hermetic lives put ever-greater stress on the rest of the family and alienated the girls from society, leading to their institutionalization, though not ending there.
No, the strange thing about “The Silent Twins” isn’t that story, which as the narrative develops becomes grimly familiar in outline. It’s how what we’re being presented with is, in effect, two very different movies, each in fundamental opposition to the other.
Part of what allowed June and Jennifer to maintain their self-contained existence — it made isolation something they might prefer — was how vivid and fertile their imaginations were. They wrote plays, poetry, fiction. “The Silent Twins” conveys their creativity quite marvelously: with drawings, stop-motion animated sequences, voice-overs that are like recitals or even chants. Later in the movie, when a typewriter the girls have ordered arrives, the moment is thrilling. They understand, and so do we, that what has come into their possession is something that’s part tool, part percussion instrument, part magic carpet.
In a way, the rest of the movie is one long descent from the opening credits, which consist of the actresses who play the girls when young, Leah Mondesir-Simmonds and Eva-Arianna Baxter, reading the credits offscreen and talking about them. The effect is utterly disarming, and the actresses are quite extraordinary. The sense of complicity between them is absolute. It lends their part of the movie an incandescent, even magical quality.
Early on, “The Silent Twins” is that rare film where you really don’t know what’s coming next. All narrative bets are off. The sense of consistent surprise is exhilarating, even as we see that nothing good can ultimately come of the sisters’ situation.
As the twins get older, their sealed-off world collides with both the expectations of society and the urgencies of adolescence. They’re now played by Letitia Wright (“Black Panther”) and Tamara Lawrence.
Specific events may remain unexpected, but the overall pattern is anything but. Surprise has given way to inexorability. There’s something very English about “The Silent Twins” (even if the director, Agnieszka Smoczynska, is Polish). It’s very English in its sense of emotional confinement, of social limitation, of lives so casually thwarted. Even when the weather’s sunny outside, it still feels gray. The tradition of kitchen-sink drama has claimed “Twins,” and that tradition is so much more oppressive when the sinks are in a psychiatric hospital.
“Twins” begins to take on a Mike Leigh aspect. (As it happens, the Brattle has a retrospective running Sept. 16-22, “Taking the Bleak with the Sweet: The Films of Mike Leigh.”) You can feel Leigh in the unemphatic rhythms, the way scenes play longer or shorter than you’d assume (usually longer), the fierce, eruptive emotions, society’s marginalization of the characters, the sense of dailiness as alternately imprisonment and exaltation. The balance between those two conditions comes to shift decisively, and not in exaltation’s favor.
“Twins” isn’t a Mike Leigh movie, though. If it were it’d be better. At its heart is a very different imbalance. Viewers know how rich and vibrant the twins’ interior life is. They have to, otherwise the movie would be emotionally unbearable. No one else in “The Silent Twins” does. Not the sisters’ family, not their teachers, not their doctors. So the adults’ incomprehension feels like disregard or even cruelty.
The one exception is a newspaper reporter. Having come across some of June and Jennifer’s writing, she crusades on their behalf. The reporter seems to have marched in from another, all-too-conventional movie. In fact, she’s wandered in from a book, the one the movie is based on.
The reporter, Marjorie Wallace, wrote that book. Wallace is one of the movie’s executive producers. Maybe that has something to do with the character’s feeling out of place, even slightly phony? Just because something really happened doesn’t mean it will come across as real in a movie. That’s the ultimate dividedness of “The Silent Twins.” What feels most fresh and true in it is, literally, imaginary, June and Jennifer’s flights of fancy. What feels most leaden and movie-phony is based on fact.
THE SILENT TWINS
Directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska. Written by Andrea Seigel; based on the book by Marjorie Wallace. Starring Letitia Wright, Tamara Lawrance, Leah Mondesir-Simmonds, Eva-Arianna Baxter. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, suburbs. 113 minutes. R (drug use, sexual content, nudity, language, disturbing material).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.