The Silent Twins is a new film based on the true story of June and Jennifer Gibbons, twin sisters born in 1963 to parents of Caribbean descent, and whose family lived mainly in Wales. Persecuted at school from an early age—primarily due to the color of their skin and idiosyncratic behavior—the twins gradually withdrew from the world, speaking only to each other (in a combination of sped-up English and Bajan Creole that made it difficult for others to understand), duplicating each other’s movements and behavior, and generally remaining non-communicative with others around them.
While their behavior seemed bizarre to observers, the Gibbons sisters fostered a creative life together, often in their shared bedroom, in which they made art, staged plays with handmade dolls and toys, and dreamed up stories and songs. While both of them wrote several works of fiction, only June’s full-length novel, The Pepsi-Cola Addict, actually saw print through a vanity publisher (although fewer than 10 original copies reportedly exist).
As they grew older, and were influenced by American boys in their neighborhood to delve into drugs and alcohol, they embarked on a string of petty crimes that eventually led them to commitment in England’s notorious Broadmoor Hospital, where they remained—unjustly, in the view of many—for more than a decade and descended into mental and physical illness.
The movie, directed by Agnieszka Smoczyńska (who helmed the dark mermaid fantasy The Lure), stars Black Panther’s Letitia Wright as June and British actor Tamara Lawrance as Jennifer, with Leah Mondesir-Simmonds and Eva-Arianna Baxter respectively playing the sisters as children. Wright, who is also a producer on the film, tells Den of Geek that she had one overriding aim in telling the Gibbons’ story.
“My goal was to reverse the misconception that was out there about them,” Wright explains. “I felt it was an injustice for their experience to be broadcast in a way that wasn’t completely true and one-sided. There was a narrative that was put out about them that made you feel like they were un-relatable, that they didn’t have any motivations or aspirations in life, and they were just boxed off as troublemakers into a psychiatric hospital. I just felt that that was the wrong approach.”
While the “real” world of the movie is often drab—particularly in the twins’ later years when they are incarcerated at Broadmoor—their creative life, often represented through animation and other visual effects, is full of vitality and color.
“I felt that this movie brought such a beautiful light about who they are, about their personalities, about their excitement for creativity and writing, and I felt like the world needed to see that,” Wright adds.
The film was inspired by the book of the same name, written by British journalist Marjorie Wallace, who learned of the sisters’ plight while they were on trial and eventually became their confidante. Wallace’s book, along with other materials about the Gibbons twins (they’ve also been the subject of a BBC drama, a documentary, and a play), provided Wright, Lawrance, Smoczyńska, and screenwriter Andrea Seigel with the background from which they were able to derive their performances.
“The research that we were able to do was with what was accessible to us,” Wright says. “We had the book written by Marjorie Wallace, we had documentaries, archives, photos. We had a nice connection with Marjorie, who was really involved in the script consulting process. She gave us an insight into the temperature of where June was at because she lives a private life that we always want to respect.”
Yes, June Gibbons is still alive; Jennifer passed away in March 1993 under mysterious circumstances while the women were being transferred from Broadmoor to a less oppressive institution. While June continues to live a quiet life away from the public eye, Wright says that the filmmaking team was able to communicate indirectly with her through Wallace.
“The way we approached this movie, this story, and the characters with love, the more Marjorie was able to communicate in her own way to June that their story was in safe hands,” she reveals. “Eventually, we got the thumbs-up that that all was well, and there was a blessing for us to move forward with the movie, because they’re represented in a way that wasn’t done before.”
Wright has never personally spoken with June Gibbons herself, but continues, “I can confidently tell you that all is well, [the movie has] been approved. She’s very aware that this film has been made, and it’s all positivity all around. I’m honored that the feedback has been so well received.”
Wright says that the story of the Gibbons sisters’ lives and experiences—harassed for the color of their skin, misunderstood for their creativity and worldview, and ultimately institutionalized in an egregious manner that was both excessive and, in the long term, damaging to the two women—is a cautionary tale about the way society, even today, can punish people for being “outsiders.”
“We as a society, unfortunately, have ways in which we can box people in,” Wright says. “I feel like this film challenges that. It challenges how when you look at someone, you see a story there, and you might think, ‘Oh, I’ve made my mind up about what this is,’ until you dig deeper, and you find out that this person is creative or loves art, or they’re a doctor, you know. It‘s just breaking the lie of false perception and false narratives, and digging deeper to find out the truth behind who people really are.”
Wright, who is of Guyanese descent herself, began her career in 2011, attaining worldwide recognition in 2018 as Shuri, the sister of King T’Challa and tech mastermind of Wakanda in Marvel’s Black Panther. Wright also acknowledges that the unprecedented success of the film, which earned $1.3 billion worldwide and blew away preconceived notions about Black-led superhero movies, has helped her gain the leverage to make a project like The Silent Twins.
“Of course, I’d like to think so,” she says. “Black Panther was a great blessing to my life. I approached it the same way I approached my first role on TV, on Holby City, just with truth and respect. Thankfully, it gave me the trajectory that I have today that I can go off and do beautiful films such as Silent Twins. So I’m really proud to have that trajectory, and the opportunities that it has presented for me.”
Wright will return to the role of Shuri this November in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, a film that was dealt a terrible blow when Chadwick Boseman, who made himself an instantly indelible presence in the MCU as T’Challa, passed away from cancer in August 2020. While the film was plagued with other problems during production, including an injury to Wright herself, she says that shooting the film in the wake of Boseman’s passing was both overwhelming and cathartic.
“It was a variety of emotions,” she says. “Definitely one of reflection, of processing grief at the same time, of trying to get a movie done, because that doesn’t just go away. But [it’s a movie] that I’m really proud of because we held each other up during a difficult time and in the process we made something that is honorable to our brother, and something that can make him proud because we’re continuing what he started. We’re not leaving it and moving away from it. We’re just trying to enhance it.”
With anticipation for Wakanda Forever building rapidly since the arrival of its stunning trailer at Comic-Con back in July, Wright thinks the film has the potential to be a cultural game-changer in the way that its predecessor was. “God willing, yes,” she says. “You make movies and you make stories to leave an impact. We did something with heart and love, and I’m excited for people to feel that on November 11.”
The Silent Twins is out in theaters now, while Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opens on Nov. 11.