Agnieszka Smoczyńska made her first film in her native Poland. It was a musical called The Lure, about two man-eating mermaid sisters who become pop music stars. Besides inspiring me to learn Polish to sing the songs, it earned an immediate Criterion Collection DVD release, because that’s the kind of talent the director has. Her third film, which is her first in English, is called The Silent Twins, and it arrives at two Cinemark theaters this weekend in Tarrant County. It is not good, but it does look amazing, and it’s a fascinating mess.
This film is also about sisters, but it’s based on a real-life case documented in a similarly titled book by Sunday Times reporter Marjorie Wallace. Jennifer and June Gibbons were identical twins born to Barbadian parents in Wales in the 1960s. As the girls grew older, they gradually stopped speaking to their parents, siblings, or anyone else, only communicating with each other in a secret language that they let no one else hear. They did write down some extravagantly imaginative stories that they sent out into the world, however, and June had a novel published called The Pepsi Cola Addict. Their violent behavior toward themselves, each other, and other people led to them being imprisoned in Broadmoor Hospital, the home of some of Britain’s most notorious serial killers. Jennifer died mysteriously upon their release from Broadmoor, and June responded by resuming communication with the world in a quiet and somewhat normal life.
The twins are played by Eva-Arianna Baxter and Leah Mondesir-Simmonds as girls, and by Tamara Lawrence and Letitia Wright as adults. The latter two don’t really look much alike, and I would have been happier had the sisters been portrayed by real-life twins or by one actress. This, though, is a minor cavil. The Gibbons’ stories play out in resplendently colorful sequences that let Smoczyńska show off her command of techniques: stop-motion animation, double exposure, scenes that are clearly shot on theatrical sets. When the sisters are sentenced to Broadmoor, a dance number bursts out that could have come straight from a 1950s MGM musical, as the twins imagine a magical place with a synchronized swim team and the other inmates treating them as celebrities. These sequences are contrasted with scenes depicting reality that make Wales seem like the most depressing place in the world. The songs here set lyrics by the Gibbons twins, with music by Smoczyńska’s collaborators on The Lure, Marcin Macuk and Zuzanna Wrońska. This is one filmmaker who should be directing musicals — Smoczyńska has the ability to tease magic out of mundane settings, and she conjures a beautiful moment in a dingy underground passageway, as the lights start flashing blue and purple in sync while the sisters dance underneath them.
That said, there’s something hard and obdurate about the treatment of the story. The sisters’ particular madness is determinedly observed from the outside, so we’re clueless when the girls attack each other with murderous intent, or when they’re both drawn to the same American boy (Jack Bandeira) who introduces them to huffing gasoline. Smoczyńska makes cinematic fables, and her unwillingness to interrogate their mythic elements too closely can be frustrating. Nevertheless, this is a wildly talented and romantic storyteller who is enthralled by creativity on the margins of the margins, and you should learn to pronounce her name (ah-NYESH-ka smo-CHIN-ska), because someday she’s going to bottle her lightning, and then watch out.
The Silent Twins
Starring Tamara Lawrence and Letitia Wright. Directed by Agnieszka Smoczyńska. Written by Andrea Seigel, based on Marjorie Wallace’s book. Rated R.