Radioactive is a biographical romance about the life and impact of twice Nobel Prize winning scientist, Marie Curie. A trailblazer for women at the turn of the twentieth century, she and her husband Pierre transformed the understanding of atomic processes. The Curies created the term “radiation” on their way to discovering new elements. Iranian director Marjane Satrapi adapts the film from Lauren Redniss’ book, “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout.” The film is highly stylized with a knockout lead performance from British actress Rosamund Pike. She’s good enough to overcome pacing issues, underdeveloped supporting characters, and a grating, theremin heavy soundtrack.
Radioactive opens in 1890s Paris. Maria Skłodowska (Rosamund Pike) is a Polish immigrant studying and researching at the university. She tries to fit into French society by calling herself “Marie.” Strong-willed and arrogant, her work is overlooked because of her sex. A chance meeting with renowned scientist Pierre Curie (Sam Riley) changes both of their fates. He’s fascinated by her experiments with uranium. Pierre invites her to his laboratory. His calm demeanor and measured approach made him an ideal partner.
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The pair spend grueling years crushing tons of ore for mere grains of material. Their efforts lead to love, and world changing scientific achievements. The Curies become international celebrities. Their family and stature grows, but consequences soon emerge. Pierre begins to get sick. Cases of serious illness cast doubts on the safety of radioactive research. Marie becomes embroiled in tabloid controversies. As war looms for France, she resolves to use her knowledge for good.
Radioactive periodically flashes forward to future events. We see the results of the Curies’ legacy; radiation triggered disease, nuclear accidents, and most horrifically, atomic weapons. Marie is eventually poisoned by a lifetime of working with radioactive elements. She must also pay a price for unlocking radiation’s deadly potential. The film then flashes back to her first brushes with death as a child. Mortality and how we leave the world is a potent theme.
Radioactive has critical supporting characters that are never explored. Pierre loves Marie unconditionally. We learn nothing else about him. A fellow researcher, Paul Langevin (Aneurin Barnard), has a torrid affair. The film treats the character as a prop piece. Marie’s daughter, Irene (Anya Taylor-Joy), gets some exposition, but not nearly enough. She followed in her parent’s footsteps and also won a Nobel Prize. The film needed to incorporate more details and personality into the secondary cast. They become placeholders on the linear chart of Marie Curie’s life.
Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis, Chicken with Plums) is a brilliant graphic artist and illustrator. She’s initially creative with the film’s visual effects. Satrapi then dials back her artistic instincts as the story gets somber. The result is a dramatic downshift to the film’s energy. The third act is leaden and sluggish. The theremin centric score by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine started to annoy me. The ethereal whirring noise, ubiquitous in cheesy science fiction, is way overdone here. It’s an obvious distraction when the narrative stumbles.
Rosamund Pike brings vibrancy and nuance to her portrayal of Marie Curie. She breathes life into a groundbreaking historical figure. Her performance makes up for the film’s flaws. Radioactive is a worthwhile character study, and primer on a titan of the modern world. Radioactive is produced by Working Title Films and Shoebox Films. It will be available to stream July 24th on Amazon Prime Video.
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Film critic, raconteur, praying for dolphins to grow thumbs and do better.