Based upon the memoir of the same name by neurologist Oliver Sacks, Awakenings (1990) revisits the summer of ‘69 – when Sacks explored ways in which revolutionary drug, L-DOPA could help Encephalitis lethargica (‘sleepy sickness’) sufferers. Director of Awakenings, Penny Marshall (also responsible for family favourite, Big), gives an intimate insight into what it’s like to feel vulnerable, trapped, and overwhelmed by life itself.
The ultimate combo
Aside from the synopsis, Awakenings is one of those films that has you invested based on the two leading stars alone. In their first feature film together, both Robert De Niro (Leonard Lowe) and Robin Williams (Oliver Sacks) are divine. While stepping out of their comfort zone by playing different characters than the ones they’re associated with, each brings their special something – De Niro’s intense seriousness, and Williams’ profound warmth.
Interestingly, their roles are reversed as the narrative and friendship unfold, requiring them to take inspiration from each other. And by the end, we realise the characters of Leonard and Oliver aren’t too dissimilar – it’s just the luck of the draw.
It’s clear De Niro spent time with ‘sleepy sickness’ sufferers, as his portrayal is so accurate and considered, like an early Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Nailing every movement, tick and expression. Even the ‘real’ Oliver Sacks said:
“In an uncanny way, De Niro did somehow feel his way into being Parkinsonian. So much so that sometimes when we were having dinner afterwards I would see his foot curl or he would be leaning to one side, as if he couldn’t seem to get out of it.”
Similarly, Robin Williams captures the passion and thoughtfulness of Sacks (if you haven’t read his memoir yet, go get it), with subtle but steady progression from a lonely, apprehensive man, into a confident, vehement neurologist. Arguably, the best, most poignant moment they share (arguably, because there are lots), is the scene in which a mother and her toddler are walking up the steps, as Sacks and Leonard are walking down the stairs – both supported by ‘the will of another human being’.
Life behind bars
Czech cinematographer, Miroslav Ondříček, uses shot composition to portray how the patients are feeling. From multiple shots behind bars, doors and windows, it puts a distance between the sufferers and the carers – an ‘us vs them’, especially when Leonard is frustrated about being cooped up. And it’s clear from the reactions of some of the patients, they feel even more trapped now than they did when they were catatonic. Older lady, Lucy (Alice Drummond), is blessed with one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking pieces of dialogue:
“I know it’s not 1926. I just need it to be.”
To counter this, and show that Sacks is on their side, Marshall captures Sacks opening windows, bars and doors throughout the film, symbolising a desire for freedom for the patients (and himself). Because, in a way, he’s trapped too. In each shot out of the hospital, he’s alone – eating, sleeping, reading. He wears blue, a nod to an inner sadness and melancholy. Confessing he likes to problem-solve, and can’t handle the unpredictable, the sleepy sickness sufferers force Sacks to confront his own fears of life and enjoy it.
Leonard and the rest of the patients are the unpredictable. They encourage him to step out of his comfort zone and experience an awakening like them. And to quote Leonard:
“They need to be reminded of what they have and what they can lose. What I feel is the joy of life, the gift of life, the freedom of life, the wonderment of life!”
This is the driving force behind the latter half of the film – for both Leonard and Sacks. Leonard, fighting the involuntary movements and shaking, plucks up the courage to have a dinner date with Paula. Which, through the simple intimacy of dancing, manages to subdue his symptoms.
Similarly, Sacks works tirelessly to prolong the success of the L-DOPA drug, and along the way listens to the advice of Leonard, and asks his colleague, Eleanor, out for coffee. Once described as ‘insubstantial as ghosts’, Leonard and Sacks awaken from their time away from earth. They’re back. And now they have a purpose.
A certified tear-jerker, Awakenings is a moving, inspirational story, guaranteed to bring on some inner reflection. You have been warned. The moral is simple: enjoy the simple things in life, get out there and live it. You only live once (shout out to Drake for that contribution) – but Awakenings is as inspirational as it is haunting.
In the final scenes, we learn more about Sacks and Leonard, but the line that stays with you long after the credits have rolled is:
The patients experienced awakenings again. But never as significant as the one in 1969.
This is an all-too-real reminder, that really, no one knows when it’ll be their last day to enjoy the sunshine, to dance, to have a conversation. Reading this now could be the last thing you ever do. And it’s this that makes Awakenings so profound.
Penny Marshall taps into feelings we’ve all had at some point in our lives, but reminds us how rewarding life can be when you venture into the unknown and unpredictable. And you might just enjoy it.