‘Radioactive’ is a Clumsy but Creative Look at the Life of Marie Curie

A still from the film 'Radioactive'. Marie Curie (Rosamund Pike) is wearing a black, late 19th century dress with a small peter pan collar. Her blonde, frizly hair is pinned high up on her head. She is doing some form of experiment, pouring a liquid from a scientific beaker into another container.
Amazon Studios

Though the film was able to hold its UK premiere in early March, Radioactive may be better suited for the VOD platform it has been moved to following lockdown and perhaps pushed by its disappointing press response. The film comes from the Oscar-nominated director Marjane Satrapi of Persepolis, an animated feature based on the graphic novel of her own memoir. Perhaps less well-known, this is not Satrapi’s first live-action feature, and the creativity of her visual language suggests that the real roadblock of the film is Jack Thorne’s script (adapted from the graphic novel by Lauren Redniss). In its haste to tell Curie’s entire life story, it misses out truly capturing what made her so brilliant as a scientist.

Beginning in the 1870s, where Polish-born Marie Sklodowska witnesses her mother’s death in a hospital, Radioactive tells the tale of one of the world’s most important scientists more commonly known as Marie Curie, the woman who won two Noble Prizes, and developed potential treatments for cancer. Expanding out into her personal affairs as well as the work that led to the discovery of two new elements, and the theory of radioactivity that changed the landscape of science altogether, the film jumps forward and backwards in time, showing us the ‘pandora’s box’ Curie’s discovery had upon the world.

The film’s aesthetic is a strong point, using lenses and colour leaning towards the feel of early cinema with an edge of the science fiction in its green (radioactive) tinged vignettes to create an almost otherworldly perspective that gets us closer to Curie’s way of thinking. Rosamund Pike herself is unsurprisingly an anchor as the pleasantly awkward renowned scientist, though this characteristic does make her flounder in some of the more talky scenes. But the extensive research the actress put in before production (to the point where she was even correcting Satrapi on the scientific details) comes across, and her skill is convincing.

A still from the film 'Radioactive'. Pierre (Sam Riley) stands with wife Marie Curie in her laboratory. He is wearing an late 19th century tan suit and has short dark hair and a thick moustache and beard. His hand is on Marie's shoulder as she looks towards a small vial she is holding up and examining.
Amazon Studios

While there are a host of spectacular films following the lives of extraordinary women, biopics about predominant female figures have also often been a source of disappointment for a great deal of cinephiles, women or otherwise. The repeated cliché of the lover (often, though not always, a man) spurring the character into domestic life frequently, for whatever reason, seems to make filmmakers incapable of then demonstrating the individual’s actual brilliance (see Christina Jeffs’ Sylvia with Gwyneth Paltrow, and unfortunately Haifaa al-Manour’s Mary Shelley starring Elle Fanning). If these ‘obstacles’ are overcome, then a case of ‘telling not showing’ has been known to be the next problem, where the script insists that the character is stubborn and outspoken enough to be what she says she is— but never in fact allows the audience to witness her actual skill or intelligence.

I outline this because, to an extent, Radioactive does not fall into these traps. Pike delivers a moving performance, even if the edit organises it strangely. And when Curie’s soon-to-be husband Pierre (Sam Riley) says he isn’t laughing at her when she explains her theory, for once it actually rings true. Their partnership is a balance we don’t often see, and the societal pressures that might favour her husband are addressed without taking over the story. Either Satrapi’s background in mathematics pays off, or she’s simply a better storyteller, because she handles Curie’s brilliance with care and is unafraid to put it on display even amongst the domestic subplot. And there’s no denying it: there’s something uniquely satisfying seeing a woman being hands-on with all the scientific equipment in a lab, crushing minerals with a massive pole herself, and being the one to explain theories on an atomic level to another woman who has been made to feel dumb.

What the film fails at is just giving Curie’s story justice. While it feels like Satrapi truly respects the story she’s trying to tell, Radioactive is uncoordinated in tone and inelegantly structured at its foundation. And it’s simply bizarre that the film puts more effort into showing how her discoveries have been used for evil after she died – and frankly sad that her literally world-changing achievements aren’t celebrated onscreen. Reenacting the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl are definitely more flashy than cancer treatment, but even with her Noble prizes and a brief mention of her work using x-rays to avoid unnecessary amputations in soldiers, when the credits roll you can’t help feeling an underwhelming dissatisfaction that Pike’s efforts as portrayed were all for naught (which is simply not true).

Radioactive ultimately paints in too broad strokes to be anything special and has oversights unpinning each step Satrapi tries to make but is a genuinely interesting, and at times inspiring, biopic. It’s a shame we don’t spend more time thinking about the future in relation to Curie’s daughters (one of which went on to win a Noble Prize herself, portrayed in a brilliant – if fleeting – performance by Anya Taylor-Joy) instead of her discovery’s weaponisation. Is Radioactive worthy of Marie Curie? Perhaps not. But the film’s failings don’t count out the flickers of liberating prowess within Pike’s performance that make the shakiness of everything else worth sitting through.

Radioactive is available on Amazon Prime UK now, and from July 24th in the US

by Daisy Leigh-Phippard

Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s LabyrinthThe HandmaidenFrida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on TwitterLetterboxd and Instagram.

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