Penny Marshall | 116 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13
Based on a true story, Awakenings tells of Dr Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams), who stumbles across an element of responsiveness in previously catatonic patients on his hospital ward. Finding a condition that links them buried in their medical histories, he supposes that a newly-invented drug might help their condition, subsequently testing it on Leonard (Robert De Niro), who ‘wakes up’ for the first time in 30 years. As Sayer continues his work, the new treatment reinvigorates the lives of more people than just the patients.
I hadn’t even heard of Awakenings until the untimely passing of Robin Williams, when it was brought to my attention by Mike of Films on the Box (er, I think — I can’t find where this occurred. Either it’s on someone else’s blog or I’ve entirely misremembered the circumstances). Frankly, I’m not sure why it isn’t better remembered. Okay, it’s a little schmaltzy towards the end, but there are plenty of films that are worse for that which are held in higher esteem by some. Perhaps it’s not schmaltzy enough for those people, but still too much for people who hate that kind of thing? Or maybe it’s something else — but I don’t know what, because the rest of the film is packed with quality and subtlety.
Such qualities are to be found in its writing — a screenplay by Steven Zaillian that conveys not only the usual story, character, and emotion, but also relates medical facts and processes in a way that is expedient to the narrative but still seems genuine. Whether it is or not I couldn’t say, but I didn’t feel conned by movieland brevity. Such qualities are to be found in the directing — unshowy work by Penny Marshall which matches the screenplay for its attention to detail in a way that never makes it feel as if we’re being fed a lot of information (although we are); that finds moments of beauty and life in the humanity of the characters, their plights, their successes, and their connections.
Such qualities are to be found in the acting — De Niro’s immersive performance as a teenager trapped in a 50-year-old’s body, bookended by a medical condition so extreme that in lesser hands it could easily have become a caricature. Also Williams, giving quite possibly the most restrained performance of his career, but fully relatable as the socially inept doctor who is slowly, almost imperceptibly, brought out of his shell. And also an array of supporting performers, who each get their moment to shine in one way or another — although “shine” feels like the wrong word because, again, it’s understated. One or two moments aside (the schmaltziness I mentioned), there’s no grandstanding here.
Combine those successes with the knowledge that this is a true story (heck, you wouldn’t believe it if it weren’t) only makes the film’s events — and its messages about being attentive of others and embracing the life we’re given — all the more powerful.