In the first half of the Twentieth Century, a number of people in the United States fell victim to a brain condition which had life-threatening implications, but when they survived all that was apparently behind them. Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro) was one of those people, yet when he was moving into his teens he found his physical fitness was beginning to slip away from him, with a difficulty in controlling his body, eventually leaving him in a state that his doctors wrote off as catatonia. Now it is 1969, and the Bronx hospital ward Leonard lives in is known as "the Garden" since the patients there are merely fed and watered as if they were plants. But when a new neuroscientist, Dr Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) is hired, he becomes intrigued by these people society has forgotten about...
Awakenings was based on a true story, that of the endeavours of the soon to be well known Dr Oliver Sacks to treat the apparently inert patients in a hospital once he noticed that they were more responsive than his peers and bosses would acknowledge. His book sold well but it took a long time for it to reach the screen, only receiving a boost when Steven Spielberg took an interest and began to develop it with his future fellow Oscar winner for Schindler's ListSteven Zaillian; the writer stayed on board when Penny Marshall opted to direct, and he received his first Oscar nomination for it, with De Niro nominated once again for Best Actor and the whole shebang up for Best Picture.
Then a curious thing happened: it won nothing on the big night, and fell away into a mixture of obscurity and dismissiveness, as if Awakenings was simply Oscar bait from another era and not worthy of consideration. Fortunately it gathered a fanbase of admirers for whom the whole story worked its tragedy upon, which oddly was why it remained underrated, often with some sneering. You could perhaps perceive the reasons for this being down to the notion of Hollywood prestige pictures not getting the respect they thought they deserved thanks to a middlebrow reputation, that director Marshall was both a woman and one who had made her name in comedy (ignoring that Big was an excellent and blockbusting example of its genre), and that its two leads were blatantly trying to make the audience cry.
Yet rather than being a pat and cynical tearjerker, Awakenings adopted a route that hardly anyone picked up on, and one which breeds misgivings in those who wanted less emotion in their medical case histories. The film tells you outright, you're goddamn right this is a sad story, it's truly upsetting that these previously normal human beings would be trapped in their own near-lifeless bodies for decades, what kind of heartless person wouldn't cry at that tale? And after an hour of deeply moving drama as Sayer, beautifully played by Williams as a shy fellow who is brought out of his shell in his work at bringing his patients round, discovers the medication L-DOPA can, as the title suggests, awaken them form their slumber, this does something interesting which wasn't acknowledged by its naysayers: it got angry.
Initially we think it is angry at the medical establishment for basically giving up on these unfortunates - John Heard is the embodiment of by the book, coldly clinical doctors Sayer has to put up with - but soon it is accusing the whole world. It's incredibly unfair that thanks to twist of cruel fate so many should be denied the opportunities plenty of other citizens have, and in De Niro you had an actor who would bring out that rage, that injustice, combined with a recreation of the patients that was carefully observed technically, hence he had the attention paid to him. In Williams, however, he had a match as Sayer's humanity and sympathy which runs so profoundly that it has left him cowed and reluctant to engage with life finds an outlet; Julie Kavner as his assistant (also excellent) describes him as a kind man, and that is a motif which is never more important than at the film's end as he wouldn't give up on those in his charge. Williams could often be accused of sentimentality in his dramatic roles, but Awakenings sensitively told us that was perfectly fine in this case. Music by Randy Newman.