“Radioactive” – “I want to tell you about Radium, a most peculiar and remarkable element, because it does not behave as it should.” – Marie Curie (Rosamund Pike)
Marie Curie – born as Maria Salomea Sklodowska in 1867 Warsaw – did not behave as she should as well. A physicist and chemist, Marie earned physics and mathematics degrees, and picked up her doctorate at the Sorbonne, where she became the university’s first female professor. To say that Ms. Curie was ahead of her time is the understatement of the century, actually two centuries.
Marie was a brilliant, landmark scientist, and she also had it all, including a doting husband and kids. In 2020, speak to any prototypical female business executive about successfully balancing a family and a lucrative career, and she may immediately direct a warranted, frustrated gaze in your direction. These days, women may find that catching a suntan during a Seattle winter or bowling a strike with a golf ball might prove easier.
From a film perspective, Curie deserves plenty of feature films and a mini-series or two for good measure. Well, 77 years ago, “Madame Curie” (1943) garnered seven Oscar nominations. Much more recently, the French/Polish production “Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge” (2016) arrived in theatres, and when Rosamund Pike agrees to play the woman in a new movie, it’s time for lights, camera, and action.
Director Marjane Satrapi (“Persepolis” (2007), “The Voices” (2014)), screenwriter Jack Thorne, Pike, and the rest of the cast and crew take action to bring Curie’s life-story to both big and small screens. (It premiered at the 2019 TIFF and carried a short run on the festival circuit, before the dystopian virus disrupted everyone’s lives. It will now reside on Amazon Prime.) Despite Pike’s convincing performance as the thinking-out-of-the-box genius, the film suffers from a straight-forward narrative that races through Curie’s life at a breakneck pace for 103 minutes. Sure, “Radioactive” offers a comprehensive history lesson, but it feels like a collection of Marie’s greatest hits that checks off a series of boxes rather diving more in-depth with a narrower scope, like other biopics.
For instance, Margaret Thatcher’s (Meryl Streep) sympathetic dementia anchors – and provides a foundation for – “The Iron Lady” (2011). In “My Week with Marilyn” (2011), the movie centers around a limited window with Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams). Since her new, wide-eyed assistant Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) and Marilyn spend personal stretches together, the screenplay’s firsthand accounts – of just a week – present meaningful, rich moments of the megastar and her new companion.
In “Radioactive”, Marie meets her future husband Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), bears two children (which predictably includes two very brief scenes of her donning nightgowns and screaming in pain), and argues with her spouse about scientific approaches. The film embraces many more events from Curie’s demanding and occupied adult life from 1893 to 1934. Satrapi packs a lifetime of experiments, theories, calculations, and ideas for the audience to absorb. In fact, the script quasi-glosses over Marie’s astonishing WWI innovation, when the filmmakers could have effectively built an entire movie on this specific, contained period. Instead, it’s one colorful billboard on a freeway, and we zip by it at 75 mph.
Wait. What was that back there?
While in the same movie, Marie and Pierre spend inordinate amounts of screen time gazing at test tubes and mixing solutions in their Paris laboratory, which may be realistic accounts of their work, but from a cinematic perspective, these scenes don’t pass the eye test.
To help lift the material out of the rote moments of mixing chemicals and asserting various theories, Satrapi and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle inject a few dreamlike sequences. For example, a Parisian performer’s fire dance blends into the couple’s experiments, or a searing, existential bright light dissolves into their lab. Although these out-of-body visuals break up the semi-monotony, they seem out of place and overproduced, like in the dizzying and distracting “The Current War” (2017). “Radioactive” isn’t as overheated as the aforementioned film about Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla, but it almost wants to be.
Still, Satrapi and Thorne get some key aspects right. This movie is an informative and comprehensive account of an extraordinary woman. If you’re only semi-aware of Curie’s discoveries, the filmmakers include an abundance of her impressive accomplishments, personal life challenges, and far-reaching impacts well beyond her earthbound years.
Meanwhile, Pike delivers a no-nonsense approach to Curie with keen, rapid-fire precision, bold confidence, and delicate humanity, as this two-time Nobel Prize winner profoundly cares for Pierre and opens up to us.
As focused as Pike is and Marie Curie was, “Radioactive” – unfortunately – is not. It has all the makings of a remarkable film, but it just doesn’t behave as it should.
⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image and Trailer Credits: Amazon Studios