Many of us know the name Marie Curie. We’ve likely heard her name in science class or had to do a paper on radioactivity and how it changed science. Well, maybe not that last part. If you are looking for a crash course on Marie Curie or the effect of her discoveries on the world, director Marjane Satrapi seems primed to give you that and then some with Amazon Studio’s Radioactive. Not content on just covering Marie Curie’s career, Satrapi gives you all that and more with a wildly frustrating time-hopping narrative that seems to come at random points in the plot that do little to enhance the plot or overall film.
Thankfully, Rosamund Pike is at her best here as physicist and chemist Marie Curie. Radioactive gives the actress plenty of time to explore the full spectrum of Curie’s personality. At one point, she can walk out of a room in anger and in the next be emotionally vulnerable about how that experience affected her, all while explaining it in a very scientific manner rather than a rational one. Pike is always great in everything, whether it’s a film that’s horrendous (Wrath of the Titans) or amazing (Gone Girl) and convinces me constantly that she is smarter than anyone else. Therefore, it is so tragic that she is given such a bland and unoriginal script from Jack Thorne and is evident in much of the first act. Young Polish immigrant Maria Sklodowska and her eventual husband, Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), spend so much time explaining things to the audience that at many times it feels like I was being talked down to at points.
A prime example is when she is explaining to her sister (Sian Brooke) why she was locked out of her lab at the University of Paris. When the conversation starts, she is complaining of the men at the University, but by the time the conversation ends, she explains that she is more than capable of finding employment at another lab. This would work narratively, but Pierre also has been kicked out of every scientific community that France could house him, so it makes no sense when their romance is boiled down to a geek-out session in a crowded nightclub.
At times, Radioactive really shines. It’s able to explain very complex scientific prospects with relative ease and accuracy, portray the acclaimed and fame that comes with discovering new elements, the scientific clout that comes with a Nobel Prize, the motherly love Marie has for her children, and the tragedy of Pierre’s death. Yet, in Thorne’s script, Radioactive includes these depictions of the dangers that the discovery of radium and polonium wrought on the world. At one point, we’re transported to 1957 Cleveland, Ohio to show radiation potentially saving a boy with Cancer’s life. Then, we see Hiroshima right before the nuclear bomb is dropped in 1945. This goes on and on until the ending, at one point interrupting Marie at her lowest to show us the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl in 1986, taking a vulnerable and critical moment from Marie to really hammer the point home.
This approach is certainly rare and thought-provoking, but the result feels like there is no focus to the plot and is a bit literal, and it sucks the momentum out of the film. There is a great biopic in here, but I feel that to get to the point, the film might end up becoming much more one-note than Satrapi might be comfortable with.
Nonetheless, the cinematography of Radioactive is always gorgeous, due to the work of Anthony Dod Mantle, who worked on wonderful films like Slumdog Millionaire. Mantle plays around with light frequently, sometimes illuminating an object to highlight its importance or place in history or to provide the scene with a bit of a less clinical look. There are sequences where a piece of Radon is illuminating an entire room, giving off this green hue that communicates a source of life and energy while also ominously portraying its dangers.
Radioactive sadly doesn’t improve much. There is an attempt to show a new side to Curie in the back half of the film, almost portraying her as a sociopath in some situations. It isn’t until the last act that the film impressed me, showing Marie try to repair her relationship with her daughter Irene Joliot-Curie (Anya Taylor-Joy) in a quick performance, showing that there is more to science than just making bold discoveries and that it’s okay to showcase your weaknesses.
Available on Amazon Prime Video.