The life of Marie Curie is one of incredible accomplishment, adversity, and loss. Her legacy is likewise complicated, as her discoveries of polonium, radium, and radioactivity led to innovations life-saving (cancer treatments) and world-rattlingly destructive (the atom bomb). To capture all this in one biopic is a grand endeavor, which director Marjane Satrapi takes on with gumption and style. However, for all the ideas and flare she puts into her Curie story, Radioactive never quite sparks.
Based on Lauren Redniss’s book Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, the film begins at the end of this storied scientist’s life. In Paris, circa 1934, the 65-year-old Marie Skłodowska Curie (Rosamund Pike in plasticky-looking old-age make-up) collapses in her laboratory and is swiftly rushed to a hospital. As medical staff rush about, the film flashes to 41 years before, when she first met the man who would be her partner in life, love, and science, Pierre Curie (a charming Sam Riley).
The whole film functions as Curie’s life flashing before her bewildered eyes, in theory allowing us into this genius’s mind. Thus, linear storytelling is rejected in favor of something more cerebral. Radioactive leaps from her early days in Paris, where her scientific research was regularly undermined by the men who dominated the field, to Poland, where as a young girl she said goodbye to her dying mother. This method allows Satrapi to skip the connective tissue, making montages of Marie’s three pregnancies, her developing relationship with Pierre–both professional and personal–and her discoveries that end in rounds of applause from roomfuls of luxuriously mustachioed gentlemen. It also allows the story to chase down the tendrils of wonder and worry that might have weighed on Curie in her final moments.
Though her story is chiefly based in Paris, Radioactive whisks through time and around the globe to show how her discoveries impacted the people of the world. Title cards announce: HIROSHIMA 1947. CLEVELAND 1957. NEVADA 1961. CHERNOBYL 1986. Then, a brief vignette showcases a scared boy being prepped for a radiation treatment that might shrink his cancerous tumor. A fleet of giddy Americans eagerly gather to witness the wonders of an atomic bomb dropped on a staged suburb, complete with a nuclear family of K-Mart mannequins. Satrapi spares us the graphic horrors the bomb and nuclear meltdown wreak on human flesh, instead allowing the melting mannequins to stand-in for the Japanese civilians who are shown enjoying the sun when Little Boy dropped out of the sky.
These scenes are studded through threads about Marie and Pierre’s romance, her struggle to be taken seriously by sexist scientists, a personal scandal that brought racism, anti-Semitism, and slut-shaming her way, and her efforts to save soldiers’ lives and limbs in World War I. There’s enough story here for a limited series, but Jack Thorne’s script breaks down much of this into bite-sized bits that are gone in a flash. While that might sound like a smart move on paper, these pieces never gel together to become greater than the sum of their parts. They feel like ideas, scribbled in a journal or spit out by a dying mind. That might be appropriate to the framing, but does nothing for the movie’s momentum.
Radioactive feels both rushed and meandering, rarely pausing to revel in the joys of Marie’s discoveries, marriage, children, or impact. It races from one thought to the next. Along the way, Satrapi offers surreal visuals of interpretive dance, science-aided spiritualism, and a color palette that veers into the violently radiant hues and uneasy greens. Radiation and its poisoning bleeds through the film visually, which is clever and compelling. The same cannot be said for its central performance.
Pike plays Marie with a socially-awkward frankness that seems intended to play as determined, but comes off as wooden. The dialogue is no help, as Thorne’s script doesn’t have Marie talk as much as declare: “I will not tolerate meddling.” “I will never be the wife or the woman you want me to be.” “Please, make my husband appear.” Even when Pike tries to work in vulnerability, such softness bristles against the lines. They sound like someone awkwardly employing a word they’re not sure how to pronounce. As such, Marie comes off as one-note through a long and traumatic series of events, which seems a disservice to a woman who clearly contained remarkable and curious complexities.
It’s not until late in the third act when Radioactive finally begins to find its footing. There, Marie battles with her eldest daughter Irene (Anya Taylor-Joy) about the war, their work, and whom she should marry. This allows the film to take a breath and give its hardened and hard-working heroine a chance to reflect on her choices. Here, I wondered how the structure of the film might have flowed better if the back and forth between mother and daughter had been its framing device, instead of melodramatic death throes. A world-weary Marie reflecting before the alert, intelligent gaze of Taylor-Joy would have allowed for half-formed ideas of regret, rage, justification, and love to be given a voice. Instead, the film relies on Pike’s silent, stony countenance to carry all of the above with a glance into the mid-distance.
To be perfectly frank, for as much as Radioactive offers, I expected more. There’s plenty of story, dreamy visuals, big ideas, and rich materials for drama here. Yet Satrapi struggles with tying them together in a way that hits the heart. It’s cerebral sure, but rarely emotionally engaging. With her autobiographical debut, Persepolis, Satrapi brought a complicated, uncompromising and charismatic character to the big screen with graphic panache;I was hopeful this intriguing storyteller would do the same for Curie. Alas, though there are flashes of brilliance here, Radioactive is a failed experiment.
“Radioactive” streams Friday on Amazon Prime Video.