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USA 1990
Directed by
Penny Marshall
121 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2 stars


It is rather surprising that Oliver Sacks endorsed this adaptation of his book of the same for it is simplistic and manipulative. The problem is not the singling out one of Sacks' many case studies, but the reductive and Hollywoodized approach to this fascinating material. Perhaps Sacks figured that the considerable exposure the film would give to his study outweighed the laboriously sentimental nature of the film. Or perhaps he thought it was pretty good.

Awakenings is the fact-based story of neurologist Sacks’ innovative treatment of a group of catatonic patients at a Bronx hospital in the late 1960s. Sacks, here called Malcolm Sayer and played by Robin Williams comes to realize that the patients, who have been written off by the hospital and received medical wisdom were all survivors of the 1917–28 epidemic of encephalitis lethargica and that their symptoms share certain similarities with Parkinson’s Disease, a malady which had been treated with some success by a then-new drug. L-DOPA.  Sayer tries large doses one of the inmates Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro) and almost miraculously, Leonard suddenly awakens from his state of profoujd suspension. Sayer gets permission to extend the treatment to the other patients and hey presto the whole ward is partying. But not for long. Leonard starts to exhibit dysfunctional behaviour and slowly the lights go out.

Awakenings is a brave movie: its subject matter is one with a limited audience and for bringing this story to our attention it deserves credit.  A film such as Rolf De Heer’s Dance Me to My Song has shown us that it is possible to make a genuinely effective film about  disability. Unfortunately director Penny Marshall (best known as Laverne from the hit 1970s sitcom Laverne and Shirley) aided by screen-writer Steven Zaillian  reduce their material to the level of TV disease-of-the-week telemovie, to the point that at times it is almost laughable.

The main offence is in Williams’ portrayal of Sayer/Sacks as a brilliant and caring but eccentric and bashful doctor.  Williams really only has one character, a brilliant and caring but eccentric and  bashful …. (you fill in the blank)... and here he rams it home to the hilt.  Not that anyone else, or for that matter anything about the film, is subtle. De Niro does an impressive job, but as the film progresses his performance too starts to look caricatural. Less would definitely have been more in this department. 

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture,  Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor (De Niro) but won none,




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