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Awakenings (1990)

This true story is adapted from a 1973 book by Dr Oliver Sacks, a clinical neurologist who in a New York hospital in 1969 used the experimental drug L-dopa to awaken a group of patients suffering from Encephalitis lethargica.

These survivors of a post-World War I sleeping sickness epidemic had lived in a state of catatonia but remained “alive inside” for decades.

Dr Sacks’s book told how his patients experienced about a month of wellness before suffering hellish side effects and retreating to their private limbos again.

The script, by Steven Zaillian, isn’t exactly the book. Robin Williams isn’t playing Dr Sacks; he’s playing a facsimile called Dr Malcolm Sayer, a change that allows for dramatic inventions, including a flirtation with a nurse, played with flinty charm by Julie Kavner.

De Niro’s portrayal of the patient Leonard Lowe is closer to the book, though a flirtation with an outsider, pretty Penelope Ann Miller, has been trumped up.

The movie focuses on the doctor’s close bond with Leonard, playing down the stories of the other patients, whose more violent and sexually aggressive reactions have been softened.

Events are condensed; the crucial awakening sequence that takes place simultaneously for fifteen patients in the film actually happened over several weeks. And the film sometimes slips into easy sentiment, which Randy Newman’s score crassly underlines.

And yet Awakenings works. With Dr Sacks as technical advisor, the film stays devastatingly true to the nature of the illness. Penny Marshall’s direction shows the patients’ situation, which the real Leonard once described as “wonderful, terrible, dramatic and comic,” with pitiless clarity.

Alice Drummond and the late jazz master Dexter Gordon stand out among the patients, and veteran actress Ruth Nelson is magnificent as Leonard’s protective mother.

But the film belongs to its two stars. Williams gets under the skin of this shy, committed doctor, registering every nuance of victory and heartbreak; this is his most mature screen work to date.

De Niro acts with staggering courage, especially when Leonard tries to stop his trembling body from dragging him back to darkness.

Williams and De Niro are astounding. So is this movie.

Leonard Lowe
Robert De Niro
Dr Malcolm Sayer
Robin Williams
Nurse Eleanor Costello
Julie Kavner
Mrs Lowe
Ruth Nelson
Dr Kaufman
John Heard
Penelope Ann Miller
Alice Drummond
Judith Malina
Barton Heyman
George Martin
Anne Meara
Richard Libertini
Laura Esterman
Dexter Gordon
Jayne Haynes
Le Clanché du Rand
Yusef Bulos
Steve Randazzo
Gloria Harper
Gwyllum Evans
Nurse Beth
Mary Catherine Wright
Nurse Margaret
Mary Alice
Keith Diamond
Steve Vinovich
Tiger Haynes
Dr Sullivan
John Christopher Jones
Dr Tyler
Bradley Whitford
Dr Peter Ingham
Max von Sydow

Penny Marshall