Awakenings (1990)

The 1920s saw an outbreak of a virus that made sufferers “experience” a lasting and subdued state of unconsciousness commonly called sleeping sickness. Forty years later – in the summer of 1969 – the miracle drug L-DOPA was administered to these patients who had been in a comatose state for most of their lives.

The result alleviates their symptoms, at least temporarily. At one stage in Awakenings the results of the drug reminded me of Cocoon gone medical, it seemed a bit trivialized. But otherwise this is a truly meaningful film.

Based on physician Oliver Sack’s novel Awakenings, the sympathetic doctor in this film version is played by Robin Williams.

Dr Malcolm Sayer (Williams) is an introvert more interested in researching plants and earthworms than working with people. When he is assigned to a position in a psychiatric ward in the Bronx, he is initially reluctant to work with the comatose patients. Yet, his journey will not only prove rewarding for his patients but will also precipitate a better understanding of himself.

The first half appears to play sentimentally, overly dramatically, and self-conscious as if director Penny Marshall is a herald for human rights.

Perhaps overly sentimental is how Leonard and Sayer communicate to one another after the wonder drug has worked, at least for a while. A scene of prolonged zoom in close ups of smiley faces bathing in their happiness over Leonard’s improvement reiterates, with heaps of filmic “smooch”, the recurrent motif of the awe-inspiring pseudo-miracle that is L-DOPA.

My problem with all this is that it isn’t natural enough, a bit of subtlety and less authorial intrusion would have worked better. However, this is a film with a heartfelt message, a good one at that, and the second half secures it movingly.

Robert De Niro’s performance is nothing short of breathless, superbly conveying the tensions and emotional pain of Leonard as well as his physical problems.

During the final half, Leonard is brought even more into focus, showing how he deals with neurological deterioration as L-DOPA wears thin.

The humiliation of presenting himself to the world, as he regards himself as only half a human being, is gut churning, and the girl he met in hospital and the aftermath of this meeting is one of the film’s real moments.

The second half is where the depiction of the human condition is acutely painful and moving to watch. When Sayer gives his speech at the end, it works—that through decay, a vision of hope is still not lost.


Revised version, original published, 2004. Awakenings (1990) Starring: Robin Williams, Robert De Niro, Julie Kavner, Ruth Nelson, John Heard, Penelope Ann Miller, Alice Drummond. Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian, based on Oliver Sacks novel. Director: Penny Marshall.


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