The 1990 movie The Awakening, starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, is categorized under the emotional and drama category. Based on the book written by Oliver Sack based on his own life, “The Awakening” is a very thought-provoking movie as it is based on a real event. For this reason, the movie was nominated for many awards.  It won the NBR award for the lead actors. 

The plot of the movie is as follows: Dr. Malcolm Sayer is a doctor who has generally worked in theoretical fields during his education life and therefore has no one-to-one communication with patients. However, the hospital he goes to for a job application hires him in a position he is not used to at all. Dr. Sayer starts working in a center for chronically ill patients, and while trying to get used to the patients, he starts to observe them. 

Many of the patients are unbeknownst to him and are cared for indifferently by doctors, nurses and orderlies. They are generally uncared for by other people as they have no reactions, no perception and no sense of movement. 

Dr. Malcolm Sayer finds it difficult to get used to the patients at first, but over time he gets used to communicating with them. He discovers new symptoms in the patients and records these discoveries continuously. Although he reports these changes in patients to the hospital management, he does not receive any positive feedback. Because most of the doctors and nurses working in the hospital have accepted these conditions of the patients. We can understand the doctors’ view of the patients from the following dialog in the movie:

_We call this place a garden.


_Because we just feed and water them.

Dr. Sayer does not accept this attitude towards patients. He believes they hear us. And he proposes a new way. He wants to test a chemical drug called L-Dopa on patients. But the hospital administration opposes this too. Dr. Sayer, who continues to insist, is allowed to administer this drug to a single person with the permission of his relatives. Thus, Leonard and Dr. Sayer’s friendship begins. 

Leonard, shown at the very beginning of the movie, is a healthy boy. However, during his school years, he suddenly loses his physical abilities and goes to live with his mother. With the permission of Leonard’s mother, Dr. Sayer begins to test the drug on Leonard. Thus, everyone is curious to see if the patient will awaken. Sayer, who sees the effect of the drug after long trials, sees Leonard awake one night. Day by day, Leonard is regaining his faculties, talking, walking and becoming aware of everything. Leonard’s transformation is recorded moment by moment on camera by Dr. Sayer. This awakening becomes a source of hope for other patients. However, this hope fades due to the side effects of the drug and its high cost. Dr. Sayer does not give up and asks the people who help the hospital to support Leonard by showing him his transformation. This request is realized. The patients wake up one by one. 

The scenes of awakenings are quite thought-provoking. Almost most of the patients have been in this state for thirty years. When they wake up, they find it hard to believe the changing times and what has happened. Especially when they look in the mirror… Sometimes they enjoy the present without caring about the years they have missed, and sometimes they become depressed by not accepting this injustice. However, their awakening is short-lived. The side-effects of the drug kick in and the patients go back to their old ways. We generally see these processes of the disease through Leonard and Dr. Sayer. Even though the trials during the disease are conducted through Leonard, the desired result is not completely achieved. But these awakenings allow everyone to learn lessons for themselves. Dr. Sayer summarizes this situation at the end of the film as follows:

“We can hide behind the veil of science and say that the drug was the reason for the failure, or that the disease came back, or that the patients couldn’t afford to lose years of their lives. But the truth is that we don’t know what went wrong, just as we don’t know what went right. What we do know is that as the chemical window closes, there is another awakening. That the human spirit is more powerful than any medicine and that it is the spirit that needs to be nourished. With work, with fun, with friendship, with family. That’s what matters. That’s what we forget. The most basic things.”

At the end of the movie, the audience is given the following information: 

Dr. Sayer and his team continued to work with post-encephalitis patients, testing new drug treatments as they hit the market. Leonard and many of the patients experienced brief awakenings, but they were never as dramatic as in the summer of 1969. 

A haunting and thought-provoking production, THE AWAKENING.

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