Imagine what it would be like to be trapped inside a body turned to stone. Try to picture being engulfed by a sickness that has taken away 30 years of your life by putting you to sleep. Think about being deprived of movement and energy, and feel yourself as totally dependent upon others for your basic needs. Consider the burdens and blessings of life, suffering, health, and happiness as you watch the extraordinary film Awakenings.
The film is based on a 1973 book by Dr. Oliver Sacks, a clinical neurologist who in 1969 administered a drug called L-Dopa to a group of chronically institutionalized patients suffering from what he diagnosed as "post-encephalitis syndrome." As a result of an encounter with encephalitis during an epidemic in the 1920s, they had turned into living statues, conscious but unmoving.
Steve Zaillian's screen adaptation of the book focuses on the relationship between the shy neurologist, now called Dr. Malcolm Sayer, and Leonard Lowe, a victim of the sleeping sickness. Robin Williams and Robert De Niro give tour de force performances as the doctor and his patient. Leonard who has been entombed in his body for 30 years and speechless is "awakened" when Dr. Sayer administers the drug L-Dopa. Miraculously his rigidity vanishes, he is able to move, talk, and feel he's a Lazarus restored to the delights of the flesh and the multiple enchantments of the world. For a brief shining period of time, Leonard and other patients with the same syndrome at the hospital become jubilant Rip Van Winkles.
Awakenings, directed by Penny Marshall, celebrates the deep down joy of life and the healing exchange that can take place between doctor and patient when caring rather than curing is the main emphasis. Although the side effects of the miracle drug eventually send Leonard careening helplessly back to his original state of immobility, he sticks around long enough to teach the shy Dr. Sayer and the rest of us a few important lessons about the preciousness of feeling, fantasy, risk, love, and wholeness.