Keep on trying

Leonard (Robert De Niro) and Dr Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams)

* * * * *

Awakenings (1990) is a moving medical drama about resilience in the face of uncommon difficulty.

The 1920’s saw an outbreak of a virus that made sufferers experience a severely subdued state commonly called ‘sleeping sickness’; Encephalitis lethargica was the medical name. Many of these patients remained in a catatonic state. However, a Dr Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams), a timid doctor, new to the neurological ward of a Bronx hospital in the 1960’s, realizes that these patients are not too far gone despite their catatonia. Optimistic that they can live normal lives, Sayer tests the medical drug L-dopa–that is usually used on Parkinson’s patients–on Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro), a sufferer since the age eleven. There is an immediate beneficial effect. With some persuasion of the medical hierarchy, they fund the drug for twenty more patients. It alleviates their physical symptoms, so they can function normally again. Sayer’s persistence in finding the right drug pays off. But there is a ‘downside’ to using the drug L-dopa which, during the second half, is not sentimentalized but genuinely sorrowful and moving, as the wonder drug L-dopa wears thin. What puts this film over the edge of acceptable and into grandness is the compassionate view that is ‘close to the bone’. Leonard particularly, but also the others, could never live a normal life; we may be painfully aware of the real depth of the loss. But there is also a sense that one must keep on trying to find a stronger remedy—it may be a struggle, but one must continue.

The first half is peppered with sentiment and occasional contrivances that diminish the return on the viewer of a meaningful depiction. I elaborated on this in a retro review I did of the film at another website. The criticism may have seemed harsh, though, as the first half is still absorbing and interesting.

Robert De Niro is absolutely breath-taking as Leonard, and with Robin Williams, have convincing doctor-patient chemistry. They are supported by Julie Kavner, as a conscientious nurse, Penelope Anne Miller as a visitor to the hospital who cares about Leonard and who Leonard likes and Ruth Nelson as Leonard’s protective Mom. These put in outstanding supporting performances.

My first website rating of Awakenings was a bit low, but on second thoughts, considering that these people experienced real suffering as the rest of the world passed them by, it is better than a mere three-and-a-half stars.

A true story based on physician Oliver Sacks’ book Awakenings.

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