Tragedy as saccharin

Wednesday, April 10, 1991

Awakenings
Directed by Penny Marshall
With Robert De Niro and Robyn Williams
Reviewed by Dave Riley

Who are you? In most senses you could define yourself relative to other people — with whom you work, live or share an outlook. But there is another self that exists before any other is possible: a sense of your own motor existence. Lose this, and you are in big trouble.

This is the topic of Awakenings. What if what you assume to be your everyday capacity is taken from you and your vigour is replaced by a vegetative existence — a slumber measured in decades? Bizarre? Yes, but not uncommon.

Oliver Sacks is a skilled and articulate author of studies of some classic neurological disorders. One of the most famous of these is the book on which this film is based.

Sacks studied 20 case histories of patients whose ravaged minds were left over from the epidemic of encephalitis that swept the world in the 1920s. Forty years on, astute administration of L-dopa — a powerful drug — temporarily brings back to life these zombie-like sufferers. It is a truly amazing transformation from stupor to health and then towards the other extreme of tics and frenzy.

The film concentrates on one of these cases. Leonard has been "away" for decades and rejoins the sweetness of his senses, but briefly, before returning to a stuporous state. The drug that nurtures and enlivens him cannot maintain its promise and neither the skill nor the dedication of his doctor and nurses can keep Leonard awake.

This is tragedy, and hardly deserving of the saccharine treatment that dresses up Awakenings. And that's a real pity.

In Sacks' books there are fantastic ready-made characters who have often been pinched for plays and operas. Awakenings steals Leonard (De Niro) and Oliver Sacks (Robyn Williams) and packages a pleasant, occasionally weepy movie designed to make us feel good.

While Leonard insists that we should "Learn! Learn from me!", it is very hard to learn much through watching this movie. What is rather significant becomes increasingly superficial. Leonard sinks back into his stupor, and nurse and doctor go off for coffee.

But there are two pluses: The first is Robert De Niro's performance as Leonard — a remarkable, understated capturing of non-being and discovery that is never mannered. The second is that, for all its juicy goodness, Awakenings does capture some of the delights of existence of which we are so seldom aware. n

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