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The true story of ‘Silent Twins’: What is fact, fiction in Letitia Wright’s drama?

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The twins are frequently depicted on screen as novelty, or even creepy. But in director Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s “The Silent Twins,” based on the true story of June and Jennifer Gibbons, everyone involved wanted to make sure there was a sense of humanity conveyed in its portrayal of the identical sisters who were hit by a system who refused to understand them.

The twins, who notably began refusing to speak to anyone except each other from a young age, were considered weird by their community and the British press, but Smoczyńska wanted to show how the twins expressed themselves, through the art they created and the novels. that they wrote The film hits video on demand on Tuesday, following a theatrical run and world premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

“For me as a director, [it] it was very important to portray them as artists,” says Smoczyńska. “And I didn’t want to do a normal biopic because I’m not interested. That’s what really intrigued and inspired me: that June and Jennifer decided not to communicate verbally with the outside world. But they chose to write words and decided to communicate with the outside world through their writing.”

June and Jennifer, played in the film by Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance, were born in 1963 to Barbadian immigrants who had moved to England as part of the Windrush generation. In 1974, they moved to Haverfordwest, Wales, becoming the only black family in town. The twins became increasingly withdrawn and after committing a series of petty crimes, the duo was eventually institutionalized at Broadmoor Hospital, where they were locked up for 11 years.

At the time, the Gibbons sisters were vilified by the press and treated as mentally ill outcasts. It wasn’t until Sunday Times investigative reporter Marjorie Wallace, who had followed her trial, began visiting the twins in Broadmoor that anyone really heard her side of her story. The couple became the subject of Wallace’s 1986 book “The Silent Twins,” which relied on interviews, diary entries, and observations to tell the unlikely story.

Screenwriter Andrea Seigel, who first discovered the story during a meeting with Shondaland’s Betsy Beers in 2006, stayed as true to the actual circumstances as possible, depicting the twins’ childhood and years on Broadmoor. While the script compresses some characters and timelines, it’s generally accurate and has June’s blessing (Jennifer died in 1993).

“I was very worried about the veracity of everything,” says Seigel. “Because I think it’s an incredible responsibility to handle a real person’s story.”

“The movie isn’t exactly a copy of June and Jennifer’s life; it is the interpretation of his life”, adds Smoczyńska. “Of course, Marjorie’s book is very deep. It is very precise and very detailed. And when I was working on the film and I was working with my team, we studied everything that was on the Internet and everything that was [in] Marjorie’s book. us [did] huge investigation. But it is not a documentary drama. This is fiction.”

Here Smoczyńska, Seigel, Wright and Wallace discuss some of the true and less true aspects of the film. While “The Silent Twins” sticks closely to known real-life events, some spoilers for the movie may follow.

Identical twins casting

June and Jennifer were identical, however, the two sets of actors who play them in “The Silent Twins” are not. Originally, Smoczyńska considered using CGI so that Wright, who is also an executive producer, could play both sisters. Ultimately, though, the filmmakers came to the conclusion that there had to be a tangible relationship between the characters. Leah Mondesir-Simmonds and Eva-Arianna Baxter were cast as the younger versions, while Lawrance was added as Wright’s counterpart.

“We met real twins during the auditions and during the casting process, but what I was looking for in terms of the mental product of this film, and it was crucial for me, was the chemistry between June and Jennifer,” says Smoczyńska. “When you want to tell the story of their relationship, which is very rich, powerful, strong, and the dynamic changes a lot, I decided, ‘No, it’s not the most important thing.’ [thing] to make twins’”.

Letitia Wright, left, and Tamara Lawrance in the movie “The Silent Twins.”

(Lukasz Bak / Focus Features)

To become selectively mute

Although June and Jennifer had the ability to speak and did speak to Wallace and a few others, they made a pact not to communicate with most people, including their family, by age 3. The longer they went without speaking, the more they felt they had to remain silent.

“It grew gradually, as I say in my book, a bit like a kindergarten game that they started playing,” says Wallace. “But like many children’s games, they can get very sinister. And in this case, they discovered this power that they had against the rest of the world. That together they formed a true power base. And then they couldn’t give that up.”

“I think it was a little difficult to speak physically, too,” adds Seigel, noting that they both had a speech impediment. “And at some point, they convinced their parents to give them surgeries, which made it painful for them to talk. But they had the ability to speak fully, and when they were alone in their room, and then occasionally on drugs and alone with boys, they were apparently garrulous.”

To create unusual voices, Wright and Lawrance worked with dialect coach Hazel Holder. The goal was to get to the truth of why the twins sounded the way they did.

“We studied and listened very closely to how June discussed when they would be quiet and when they would talk,” explains Wright. “And we learned very early on from the research that we did on the book that they had a speech impediment, and that speech impediment prevented certain words from coming out clearly. But they still had to navigate by talking to each other in a way they could understand. So it was a lot of technical work.”

Over the years, due to not communicating with the world, the twins were repeatedly diagnosed by doctors and specialists. However, Wallace, who is also the founder of the British mental health charity SANE, doesn’t think those diagnoses were accurate.

“At Broadmoor, they were diagnosed with possible schizophrenia,” says Wallace. “I challenged psychiatrists on that. I know a lot about schizophrenia because I created SANE, which was originally for schizophrenia. I said, ‘Have you read what they’ve written? Nothing that has been written here is psychotic or about schizophrenia. But they were still given antipsychotic medication at Broadmoor. They were very poorly judged.”

Seigel adds, “You can’t remove the complexity of your twin from the diagnosis. So we can’t say it’s schizophrenia because you have to look at the way these twins were so intertwined, which is a completely different scenario than where they had visions or imagined scenarios. Something was really going on between them that was really unusual.”

Tamara Lawrance, left, and Letitia Wright in the movie “The Silent Twins.”

(Jakub Kijowski / Focus Features)

Going from artist to criminal

For the film, Smoczyńska created colorful stop-motion animation sequences to depict scenes from the twins’ novels, which they wrote as teenagers. June’s novel, “Pepsi-Cola Addict,” was published by a vain press that no longer exists. The original is hard to come by: Seigel hired someone to scan a photocopied version found in a library, but it has since been reprinted in a limited edition with a new introduction in June. Jennifer’s work “The Pugilist” was never published, but, according to Smoczyńska, she will now find her way to the shelves, thanks to the film’s attention.

As June and Jennifer became more immersed in their writing, they became obsessed with understanding romance. That led them to venture out of their bedroom and into drugs and sex with a pair of local expat American brothers. In 1981, the sisters committed several crimes, including theft and arson. During their trial, the twins were found guilty on 16 counts of robbery, larceny and arson and received an indefinite sentence at Broadmoor at age 19.

“It was what [be] the equivalent of adolescent boyish behavior,” says Wright. “Just trying to explore another side of themselves, they didn’t know how to fully navigate. I think he was trying to be adventurous to feed his books, feed his novels that they were writing, and he went too far. … It went too far to the point of [the authorities] saying, ‘I think it’s better to lock them up indefinitely.’ What will you see in the movie?

For Wallace, who remains close to June, “The Silent Twins” is a way of exposing the injustice of the situation. Although he campaigned for their release from Broadmoor, no psychiatrist was willing to accept them. And the twins’ relationship meant it was as challenging for them to be together as it was to be apart. Ultimately, Wallace hopes the film will create more empathy for people who are considered outside the norm.

“I hope that this film teaches anyone who is in the psychiatric world, or really any of us, that when you come across people who can behave quite strangely, there is a soul, as June would say, underneath, and it is much more complex. Wallace points out. “And you should always listen to what that person has to say, read what they write, and appreciate the insights you can get from people you might pass over and say, ‘Oh, well, they’re a bit of a waste of time.’ I think this movie will do that.”

freeing his sister

The most mysterious aspect of the twins’ story, which is addressed at the end of the film, is Jennifer’s death. In the weeks leading up to June and Jennifer’s release from Broadmoor in 1993, Jennifer began telling Wallace that she was going to die.

“They had decided that the moment they left Broadmoor, one would have to die to free the other,” recalls Wallace. “They couldn’t live together, they couldn’t live apart. They would really free one of them, so the other had to die. And it was decided that Jennifer had to die. June was more outgoing, more capable, [and] Jennifer was probably the one who was much more mentally disturbed, and they had decided that she would have to die.”

Shortly after leaving the hospital, Jennifer slipped into a coma and was dead that night. Although she had acute myocarditis, there was no evidence of a cause of death. Since then, June has led a relatively normal private life and believes that Jennifer sacrificed herself for the greater good.

“I talked to June a lot about this,” says Wallace. “Actually, a few months ago. I said, ‘Well, why do you think Jennifer died?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know. But she had to die. That was our destiny.’”

“I follow June’s belief, and June’s belief is very strongly that Jennifer decided that if they were going to get out of Broadmoor, if June was going to have any hope of successful acclimatization to society, Jennifer couldn’t be around.” Seigel adds. “So June believes very, very strongly that Jennifer shut her body down and left this world so she could move on. … In a sense, maybe it’s true that Jenny gave June a gift, if you want to think about it in some spiritual way. That maybe it was an act of mysterious love. But I love the fact that you can’t really answer what happened between those two.”

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