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FILM REVIEW - Awakenings

Well, this rarely happens, but I’ve managed to watch two films in a week. What are the chances? But my siblings were like it’s time we returned to ‘Cinema Club’ and picked another random film! Last night’s film was ‘Awakenings’. I knew nothing about it, but when I saw that it starred Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, I already had the feeling that it was going to be a good one!

‘Awakenings’ tells the story of Malcolm Sayer, a doctor who applies for a new job at a hospital in the Bronx. Malcolm has very little clinical experience and seems initially hesitant to take the job, especially since the majority of the patients are chronically unwell and catatonic. One day whilst seeing a new patient, Lucy, Malcolm discovers that she may not be as static as everyone believes. Excited by this discovery Malcolm investigates further and finds out that all the catatonic patients suffered from an illness known as ‘encephalitis lethargica’ in their childhood after which their symptoms developed. He theorises that perhaps these patients’ condition is similar to Parkinson’s and begins to research if the drug L-DOPA might be able to help. Reluctantly the lead doctor at the hospital agrees that he can try it on one patient. Malcolm chooses Leonard Lowe, a patient with whom he has formed a connection. One night after administering a large dose, Malcolm awakes to find Leonard not only conscious but able to talk and move freely. His experiment is clearly a success and Leonard works with Malcolm to convince donors to provide enough money that they can give all the catatonic patients this drug. All awaken and for a while, they are able to live relatively normal lives in the hospital. Leonard is reunited with his mother who is thrilled that her son has been bought back from the state he was in. However, Leonard soon begins exhibiting side effects of the drug which see him becoming manic and developing tics. It becomes apparent that the drug is beginning to lose its effects and Malcolm works tirelessly to come up with a way to prevent the disease from returning. Can he think of something in time? And will all the other patients suffer the same fate as Leonard?

It goes without saying that Robin Williams was one of the greatest actors of all time. Growing up I watched him in so many children's films such as ‘Mrs Doubtfire’, ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Hook’ that he became part of the fabric of my childhood. I had heard that he had also starred in several serious films, but I never got a chance to watch very many of them, so when I saw that he played the lead role in ‘Awakenings’, I was intrigued. Despite the more serious subject of the film, many of Williams’ mannerisms were the same and he brings a level of emotion, especially frustration and anguish, which heightens the experience of the viewer. His co-star and the standout performer in this film, Robert De Niro, does a fantastic job! I told my siblings last night that we often hear about De Niro’s acting abilities from our parents, but many of the roles we’ve seen him in now are less serious, eg ‘The Intern and Meet the Parents. But watching him in ‘The Godfather II’ and Heat’ I realised that perhaps cinema club was going to open my eyes to his true ability and it really has. He has this real innocence playing Leonard and that’s to be expected given that Leonard doesn’t realize how many years have passed, but towards the latter part of the film when the side effects of the medication start, you can see just how much work De Niro put in, in displaying how those symptoms may manifest. Some top-quality work!

As a doctor, I have to say the film’s subject really interested me mostly because half the time I was trying to diagnose the patients myself. I know that it was based on a true story and when I was looking at the source material, which was a memoir by Oliver Sacks, a doctor who did attempt to treat patients with encephalitis lethargica in this way, in the 60s, I found that the film had remained largely accurate to Sacks’ experience. In that sense, despite the plot being fairly simple, I felt that the performances by the two main actors and the way that Leonard’s story is expanded on make it a very good watch. Films with subjects like these can often be difficult to watch in terms of the emotions they evoke in the viewer, but there was a good mix of humour to lighten the burden of the heavy scenes. There were several moments that bought tears to my eyes, especially towards the end when Leonard’s symptoms begin to return. It’s definitely a film that I think I’d recommend to others who want to watch something a little different but with fantastic acting!

I’ve actually got very little to say about the cinematography. It wasn’t bad, but I wouldn’t say there was anything there that drew my eye to the way specific scenes were filmed. The music was very much the same. I know the legendary Randy Newman composed the score, but I’m not sure I was ever aware of it and how it played out combined with the film. Overall, however, despite perhaps having average cinematography and music, the acting performances and the strong story bring the rating of this film to a very respectable level. I was highly impressed!


  • Story: 15/20

  • Acting: 17.5/20

  • Cinematography: 12.5/20

  • Music: 12/20

  • Enjoyability: 18/20

Overall: 75/100

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