Ask someone to name a female scientist, and most of the time they will go for Marie Curie. Born Maria Skłodowska in 1867, she would go on to be the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person to win it twice, and formed the science that would become the basis for Cancer treatments and save countless people. How can the depth and impact of such a life accurately be shown on screen in two hours? Well you really can’t, or at least you can’t in Marjane Satrapi’s Radioactive, which follows Curie (Rosamund Pike) through her meeting and marrying husband Pierre (Sam Riley), their discoveries of radioactivity, the elements Polunium and Radium, and how she struggled to cope after Pierre’s sudden death.
Satrapi has the potential to be a visually inventive director but this isn’t the film to make the most of it. This is her fourth film as a director, her second directing solo after her first two films Persepolis and Chicken with Plums -based on her autobiographical graphic novels - were co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud. While there are individual moments that work nicely in isolation, but all put together just feel unfocussed. That’s not without the cast putting forth their best efforts. Rosamund Pike is a compelling Marie, fiercely intelligent but also humanly shy and awkward at times. She carries the film well, and is backed solidly by Sam Riley's Pierre.
As a biopic it feels like the bullet points of Marie Curie’s career. The science montages are interesting, but they skip by so quickly that we don’t get to relish in them as much as we should. These are the reckless pioneer days of science and the film could represent that more. Then, in the second half of the film the science takes more of a back seat to the drama as Marie struggles to deal with the aftermath of Pierre’s death.
The part that held my interest the most after that initial scientific revelry is one that comes near the end where Marie and her daughter Irène - at this point played by a brief but excellent Anya Taylor-Joy - work to outfit ambulances during World War I with X-ray machines, which led to the saving of thousands of soldiers on the battlefield from death and unnecessary amputations. It is fascinating and thrilling but unfortunately over all too soon.
It also means that anyone unfamiliar with Marie Curie will find that the film doesn’t really give much opportunity to get to know the pioneering woman. Those who are familiar with her will find it frustratingly shallow. It feels like a film destined to be shown in a science class at school; it’s got all the important bits and the kids at the back of the classroom can giggle when Marie and Pierre go skinny-dipping on their honeymoon.
Another problem is that the film tends to talks down to its audience especially when conveying the themes about the impact of Curie’s work. It’s full of sweeping statements like “this will change science forever” that almost feel like a nudge nudge wink wink to the audience. The old adage when it comes to film is “show, don’t tell” but it even ends up showing too much. It cuts away from Curie's story to the effects her work had on science as a whole; both good and bad. It’s something that definitely could have worked and drawn a line to the present with Curie’s legacy, but it ends up making the pacing of the film uneven. The film's message (or what it's attempting to say) ends up heavy handed at best and patronising at worst.
As Pierre Curie accepts the couple’s Nobel Prize and ponders about whether the discoveries that have been made can be used for the benefit of mankind or for evil, we also see the fateful day of August 6th 1945 as Little Boy is dropped on Hiroshima. Moments like these probably worked just fine in Lauren Redniss’ graphic novel on which the film is based, and if done more subtly could have been an artistic embellishment, but here it belabours the point and gives the impression that Satrapi doesn’t expect the audience to be able to connect the dots themselves.
The film also portrays Curie as something of a lone ahead-of her-time powerhouse never respected by her peers, something that isn’t quite true or at least not in the way the film shows it but it serves to act as an easy character archetype to be latched onto. The inclusion of a phobia of hospitals is an odd embellishment. Factual liberties are a factor in every biopic and included/excluded for a variety of reasons like condensing events to make a smoother narrative but changing an aspect of the person’s personality for the plot feels disingenuous to its subject.
I had a similar problem with Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game where among other things they decided to change Alan Turing into Clever and Arrogant Generic Benedict Cumberbatch Character. Why twist genuinely interesting historical fact to fit into a much less interesting and more generic fictional story? It’s not as egregious here in as in that film, but still enough to be noticeable.
Radioactive has a lot of the elements needed to make something really good, but all mixed together this experiment fails to yield any significant reaction.
Radioactive is available to VoD from 6th July and released on DVD on July 27th