movie film review | chris tookey


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  Awakenings  Review
Tookey's Rating
8 /10
Average Rating
7.58 /10
Robert De Niro , Robin Williams , Julie Kavner
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Directed by: Penny Marshall
Written by: Steven Zaillian , from Oliver Sachs's book

Released: 1990
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 121

A neurologist (Robin Williams), himself emotionally crippled by shyness, becomes fascinated by some patients who appear catatonic but aren't. The fact that one of these "living statues" is Robert De Niro is an early indication that Williams's attempts to revive at least one of them will meet with a measure of success.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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This underrated - even patronised - film, set in 1969, was based on Oliver Sacks's 1973 book of case histories, which also formed the basis of a TV documentary and Harold Pinter's one-act play, A Kind of Alaska . Over the years, treatments of the idea had been turned down by most of the Hollywood film companies. Steven Zaillian's script - though much criticised by reviewers - is a verbally economical, splendidly visual example of Hollywood screenwriting.

Robin Williams is impressive as a kind of white knight of the living dead, although his own escape from excessive rigidity is inevitably on a lower level of emotional intensity than De Niro's. De Niro's Oscar-nominated performance, a technical tour de force, was derided by some as a collection of tics and silly walks, and a cynical pursuit of his third Oscar (the last two "best actors", Dustin Hoffman and Daniel Day Lewis, had both played people with handicaps). However, De Niro's is by no means a heartless or sentimentalised portrayal, and is also - according to Sacks himself - highly realistic. The most justified complaiint is that the sub-plot where he fell in love with a hospital visitor (Penelope Ann Miller) is handled with so much restraint and conventional taste that it fails to carry much conviction.

But it is refreshing to see a Hollywood movie which is thoughtful , unexploitative and rich in visual imagery - the changing seasons and means of confinement are the dominant symbols - without sacrificing populist elements such as emotional directness, humour and narrative drive. It leaves clinical questions unanswered, but then it never sets out to be medical reportage. This is Hollywood drama, doing what it often does best: illuminating the extremes of human existence. The tragic and horrific aspects of the story are all there, though offset by delightful touches of irony and generosity of spirit. And the film is unusual for its positive portrayal of the 1960s, as a decade when a whole generation came to life and started expressing itself, before falling back into a state of apathy and inertia. Even if you don't share that view of the era, this is a magnificent, life-affirming film.

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