One of the most well-known facts about French-Polish scientist Marie Curie was how self-damaging her discovery ended up being. Decades after her untimely death, it was discovered that Curie’s old furniture, manuscripts, and even cookbooks are still at lethal radiation levels. Purveyors of Marie Curie’s work must wear protective clothing and are required to sign a liability waiver just to handle the material.
The ripple effects of Curie’s work can be felt long after her passing in 1934. In Radioactive, the newest film from Persepolis director Marjane Satrapi, these future ramifications are shown in vivid detail. With its ambitious use of time skips, Radioactive aims to change up the typical biopic structure into something more abstract. Satrapi’s efforts fall short, but not without some impressive moments throughout.
The tried-and-true biopic formula is tossed aside in Radioactive. Instead of starting at the beginning of Marie Curie’s life, Satrapi avoids a linear narrative by weaving in scenes from the past and future. These scenes will occasionally clash with Marie Curie’s personal experiences in the movie’s present tense. On occasion, flashbacks to Marie’s lowest points will be shown in tandem with a catastrophic future event involving her discovery.
This approach, while admirable, makes Radioactive feel painfully scattered and incoherent. Any drama that Satrapi builds up to ends up being needlessly interrupted by other moments butting in. Nothing is able to fester or grow. Instead, the film just briskly moves along without a second thought.
Radioactive bumbles through all of Marie Curie’s major accomplishments before the 30-minute mark is even reached. Four years of Curie’s research is covered early, which leaves the rest of the film to show everything that follows. Curie’s life was infamously full of controversial moments. The original Nobel Prize from her research was given only to Pierre, Marie’s husband. Another such moment, as shown in the film, was the detail regarding her status as an immigrant. These scenes offer a bit of light into Marie Curie’s troubled life after becoming renown, it’s just unfortunate that these are few and far between.
Rosamund Pike plays the French-Polish scientist and, despite being ruled as an outcast by her peers, still aims to push her scientific ambitions forward. In the male-dominated field of science, Marie Curie is seen as brash, arrogant, and abrasive. This results in her losing the spot in a laboratory with no funds to continue her research. The allure of male genius is seldom challenged in Radioactive, which is unfortunate. Marie Curie’s research broke this trend somewhat, but the film fails to fully encompass her entire contribution to the scientific community.
Pike’s performance, much like Marie Curie herself, is rebellious and very matter-of-fact. She delivers a version of Marie Curie that is multi-faceted, but simultaneously grounded by her ambitions. Pike and Sam Riley (Pierre Curie) have excellent chemistry together, especially during the film’s slower moments.
Sadly, the performances are weighed down by Radioactive‘s poor screenplay that is full of questionable dialogue, insipid exposition, and little-to-no dramatic upturns. The editing is incredibly jarring at points as well, as it splices in odd bits and pieces of effects within the original footage.
There is plenty of good sprinkled in Radioactive‘s runtime though. Satrapi paints Marie Curie’s story as a cautionary tale. For every single bit of good that the Curie’s work created, there was something negative that would eventually come from it. One great bit of juxtaposition comes from Pierre accepting the Nobel Prize for Physics while splicing in the bombs dropping on Hiroshima. What Radioactive lacks in subtlety, it makes up for with intent.
Despite some ambitious attempts at storytelling, Radioactive is an uneven biopic that fails to truly show just how important Marie Curie truly was. Rosamund Pike and Sam Riley save this film from being an outright failure, but the result is still incredibly misguided and, ultimately, disappointing.