Awakenings hasn’t been seen by as many people as it should have and hasn’t been praised nearly enough – it is definitely one of Robert De Niro’s greatest performances and sheds light on formally undiscovered (for me) aspects of the actor; in Awakenings, and through Leonard Lowe, De Niro demonstrates a depth of character and broadness of emotion that can only perhaps be found in 1980’s Raging Bull ten years earlier. He is simultaneously childlike and beaten down, simultaneously innocent and wild. Accompanied by Robin Williams, who plays Dr Malcolm Sayer, a clinical physician at a psychiatric hospital in the Bronx, Awakenings is brought to life.
Based on a true story, Leonard is one of the select few unfortunate souls who unexpectedly entered a catatonic state around the 1920s when it became an epidemic, and who is now (the film is set roughly 30 years later) stuck in a psychiatric hospital being cared for in a manner with which you might care for a plant. The difference with Leonard is that he was struck at a very young age, and so has lived catatonically for the most part of his life. Dr Sayer takes a special interest in him for a number of different reasons, although displaying remarkable levels of interest and closeness with a wide number of patients that puts, in the eyes of the viewer, the other doctors to shame.
Read at Unsung Films: This Boy’s Life.
Dr Sayer was given his job in spite of his research background, and probably because of this, the fuel that ignites Awakenings is the research he does into his patients’ illness, his discoveries concerning its similarities with symptoms of Parkinson’s, and possible treatments. This leads to experimentation with his favourite patient Leonard and subsequently the growth of an unbreakable friendship. The chemistry between the two characters is primarily what makes the film a spectacular one, combined with the intensity of the emotion conveyed by De Niro through Leonard as his awakening occurs and complications begin to occur.
Oliver Sacks, the man that the character of Dr Sayer was based on, is said to have been an extreme character, shy and unable to connect with people, celibate for the most part of his life, swimming and bodybuilding in his free time… one would need further research to understand this through what we learn about Robin Williams’ Dr Sayer, but something special is conveyed through Williams’ awkward and jerky movements, his quivering voice that rises and falls, and his deep love for the patients whose lives he holds in his hands. It is in the role of Dr Sayer that Williams thrives. He is forced to restrain himself, behave normally, sit nervously alongside his colleagues – and his continual discomfort is always visible.
Awakenings is an extremely well-written story that can perhaps be divided into three parts. Each part contributes differently to the viewer’s experience. The first half is largely comedic, offering a glimpse into a psychiatric ward that is reminiscent of McMurphy’s experience in Milos Forman’s adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It then moves swiftly into a period that is reflective of the film’s title. The patients begin to wake up from their near-comatose states, experience the world for the first time in 30 years, and the whole story enters into the realms of the feel-good. In the third and last stage of the film, the atmosphere changes again, reverts back to the beginning, only things are different, darker; Awakenings flings the viewer out of the growing sense of warmth and comfort and into a slow and nail-biting tragedy.
Watch the trailer for Awakenings here: