Out of all the subjects to make an Oscar-bait biopic, nobody would ever put pivotal Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie anywhere near the top of their list. And yet, that’d never stop Hollywood, or London’s equivalent to the Hollywood movie-making machine from making one. The results, much like the Madame’s experiments, beyond messy. In the 40s there was Greer Garson in Madame Curie; now it’s beloved character actress Rosamund Pike’s turn in the equal parts educational though confusing Radioactive. As flawless as any actress can be with a real-life figure, much of it is still the dud that any bad scientific experiment evolves into.
Set across much of the Madam’s life, beginning in her early days as Polish-born Marie Skłodowska, a budding scientist working to pay her dues. That is until a chance encounter with the roguish pretty-boy Frenchman Pierre Curie (Sam Riley) takes her pursuits in an exciting new direction. As partners in life, love, and work-related hazards, they are uniquely unstoppable, working nonstop to discover potent elements with many applications. And passing that legacy on their next of kin, namely daughter Irene (played all too briefly as an adult by Anya Taylor-Joy).
On its unstable surface, Radioactive runs very straightforward, showcasing Pike’s talents for digging deep into a character, and strengthening their cultural or historical influence. Riley’s the delightful partner, helping to channel her frustrations, in life and in death. Aneurin Barnard steps in as Marie’s second husband, who’s not even closely likable but poses a worthy foe. And Simon Russell Beale, bless him, ever the sounding board, the voice of reason, overly critical supporter, what have you, for the madame’s trailblazing path. Such a powerful journey of scientific advancement, for better or worse, that’s exactly what causes this otherwise decent character-driven biopic to shatter into a total lack of course.
Marjane Satrapi has proven no slouch as a purely visual director; Radioactive is her fifth attempt to make a striking statement in that department. Perhaps best known for the graphic novel inspired Persepolis, that very same mentality is applied to this biopic, working off another rather lackluster script by Jack Thorne (The Aeronauts), and inspired from an unconventional book by Lauren Redniss. The combination of all three talents amounting to a bad headache when we lose time with the key subject. What they’ve inadvertently achieved and influenced to future scientists, that’s where the focus tends to skew. Not that well-shot flashbacks to Hiroshima and Chernobyl would not strike any viewer with fear and guilt.
When this film can keep its focus, that is where it holds steady. Barely. Roughly 80% of the time, it either bores the viewer to an insane degree or boils the blood simply because it fails to make any sense whatsoever. Were it not for Pike in the lead, its effect would not go so far so quickly. Its very graphic imagery at points feels so out of place for a live-action drama, showing human success and tragedy through the sort of hyper-realistic lens where if one were to stare too long, the eyes would cramp. I hold no ill will to cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (T2 Trainspotting), whose camera wizardly keep Satrapi’s vision on solid footing. And yet, it’s difficult not to question every other decision she and Thorne take in this adaptation.
Weird spiritualist rituals, and abstract ballet performances? This couldn’t be further from a Darren Aranofsky masterpiece; in Satrapi’s hands, it does not work in live-action. Try in animation, maybe it would have a chance. Dark death scenes? Seeing a character fall from grace in a disturbing manner, that barely has any place in a biopic, unless it were a retelling of Jack the Ripper’s life story in Murder by Decree. The representation of a slow-moving illness caused by radiation poisoning? Riddled with clichés up the yahoo, and subtlety found nowhere.
Aside from its visual strengths, and the musical originality of Evguen and Sacha Galperine (Loveless), the only real positive carrying Radioactive well towards its finish line is Pike. She fights, screams, hollers, and schemes to get her voice heard. In the face of total adversity and damage control, she’s beyond adamant to prove the validity of the elements she had aided to create for humanity’s mass production. Take her out, and there is not much of a film. Leave her in, we still have a rather inadequate portrait of a figure whose legend is still buried in mystery. Easily on the lower end of all scientists’ biopics; think The Current War but even more like a Broadway play.
Radioactive has the right elements to prove a worthy conversation piece come awards season. Its concept of merging the past, present, and future as one living organism of time construction lacks follow-through. Its lack of factual guidance, replaced with high art production values, may leave scholars scratching their heads. And its near-absent motivations may leave the overall experience flat and lifeless. I reckon high school students, and the more artistic cinephile may appreciate its boldness. But for everyone else seeking a definitive adaptation of the Curies’ lives and approach to a better future through chemistry will be better off looking elsewhere. (C-; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)
Radioactive is available for streaming on Prime Video July 24; rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, brief nudity, and a scene of sensuality; 109 minutes.