Updated: Jul 13, 2021
Radioactive (now streaming on Amazon Prime) has the form of a standard biopic. It introduces a notable historical figure, relating how they came to do what they became famous for and the effect it had on their life. In outline, that is exactly what Radioactive is. That outline is not used in an especially interesting way, trapping the movie in a very familiar story containing too little actual drama. What is interesting is the structural approach, as well as the lead performance. They contribute a thoughtfulness that fills the outline in just enough to make it mildly intriguing. Not enough for a recommendation, but worthy of at least some praise.
This is the story of Marie Curie, who was responsible for the discovery of radioactivity. The plot charts her experiments, the aftermath and her love for her husband, Pierre Curie. It is a formulaic arc that goes nowhere unexpected. Most significantly, it struggles to make her feel real, keeping her as “important famous person whose work changed the world.”
There is, however, some nuance in her portrayal. That seems to come almost entirely from the performance of Rosamund Pike. It reminded me a bit of her excellent work in 2018’s A Private War, a superior biopic about war correspondent Marie Colvin. In both, her character is ferociously driven by her dangerous work, regardless of the opinion of those around her. She will not stop fighting for what she believes in. Here, the screenplay is far less complex, yet Pike still does good stuff with what she has.
Displaying intensity is one thing; getting across someone’s brilliance is a much taller task. Marie Curie is the smartest person in any room she walks into and she is certainly aware of it. Pike shows this, not just with arrogance, but an easy confidence. She knows she’s right, talking through the professors who refuse to give her the respect she is due. It is not what she says, but how, that makes her intelligence so convincing. She is so direct that she talks down to people unintentionally. There is a force to her that makes other academics, particularly men, uncomfortable. She doesn’t have time for niceties when there are so many exciting things to learn.
Sadly, her relationship with Pierre, the story’s emotional center, is not developed as well. Though they bond over their mutual love of science, there isn’t much passion. That said, Pike has multiple moments where she is able to suggest that passion on her own. The most impressive comes late in the movie when she collapses while desperately calling out for him. Believability is important. Pike pulls that off consistently, despite the rest of Radioactive being pretty routine.
Director Marjane Satrapi attempts to add context to Curie’s work, by showing its impact on world history. For instance, at various points, the screenplay flashes to the bomb being dropped on Hiroshima or the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, events that took place well after Curie’s death. It is intended to provide extra meaning to their lives, as we see the Curie’s being celebrated, immediately followed by some of the things their discovery was later used for. While it is a captivating idea, too often, it feels like an interruption. More than one seemingly big moment is cut short to briefly takes us twenty years into the future. It is thought-provoking, though Satrapi didn’t always find the best spot for it.
Radioactive (based on Lauren Redniss’ 2010 book “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie – A Tale of Love and Fallout”) is about a woman fighting for her position in a profession where women got little respect. However, Satrapi never turns Marie Curie into a feminist icon. In fact, the concept of gender discrimination is addressed twice; both times Curie dismisses it as a possible reason for her troubles in the scientific community. She will not make excuses. She is doing it for science, not for women.
Marie Curie makes for a good subject, Pike was absolutely the right choice to play her and Satrapi is a skilled director. The screenplay doesn’t take as many chances, dragging them down to its level.
2½ out of 5
Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie
Sam Riley as Pierre Curie
Aneurin Barnard as Paul Langevin
Simon Russell Beale as Professor Lippmann
Directed by Marjane Satrapi
Screenplay by Jack Thorne