In dire financial straits, the physician-researcher, Dr. Malcolm Sayres (Robin Williams), accepts a clinical job for which he is decidedly unsuited: staff physician in a chronic-care hospital. His charges include the severely damaged, rigid, and inarticulate victims of an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica. Sayres makes a connection between their symptoms and Parkinson’s disease. With the hard-won blessing of his skeptical supervisor, he conducts a therapeutic trial using the new anti-Parkinson drug, L-Dopa.

The first patient to "awaken" is Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro) who, despite being "away" for many years, proves to be a natural leader, with a philosophical mind of his own. Other patients soon display marked improvement and their stories are told in an aura of fund-raising celebration marked by happy excursions.

Gradually, however, problems develop: patients have trouble adapting to the radical changes in themselves and the world; Leonard grows angry with the imperfection of his rehabilitation; the horrifying side effects of L-Dopa appear; and Leonard’s mother (Ruth Nelson), initially happy for her son’s recovery, is later alienated by the concomitant arousal of his individuality, sexuality, and independence. The film ends with "closure of the therapeutic window" and marked regression in some patients, but not before they have awakened clinical commitment and a new ability to express feelings in their shy doctor.


Based on the autobiographical account of neurologist, Oliver Sacks, this deeply moving film uses gentle humor to explore the experience of people who have been stripped of their ability to communicate with the rest of the world. Williams plays the bumbling but well-intentioned doctor with a measured grace, which is well matched by Julie Kavner in the role of Eleanor, the supportive and intensely pragmatic nurse. De Niro’s portrayal, not only of his character but also of the Parkinsonian symptoms and the grotesquely deforming side-effects of dopamine, is a neurological as well as artistic "tour de force."

As Leonard’s mother begins to prefer her son’s vegetative past, she demonstrates how all persons in a patient’s sphere suffer the effects of institutionalization. The individuality of the awakened patients and their passion for real living is a sobering reminder of the "unthinkable," possibly conscious-but-incommunicado existence of people whose mental status is unknown.

Some license is taken in the presentation of the events--for example, Parkinsonism was already a known sequela of encephalitis lethargica. But this film offers an engaging version of a "true" story of triumph and disappointment from medicine’s recent past.


Based on the book, Awakenings, by Oliver Sacks. The film was nominated for two Oscar awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (De Niro).

Primary Source

Columbia Tristar Home Video, Facets Multimedia