A patronising script and some befuddling storytelling choices make Radioactive off-putting, despite a game leading performance.
Marie Curie, whom the always dependable Rosamund Pike plays in Marjane Satrapi’s Radioactive, which debuted on Amazon Prime Video today, won two Nobel prizes – one in physics, for the discovery of radioactivity, and one in chemistry, for the discovery of polonium and radium; this work eventually killed her. I raise this to make the point that Marie Curie was, to put it mildly, a bit clever, and certainly one of the most enduring and inspirational feminist figures in the typically male-dominated STEM fields. This is, I think, common knowledge, not at all controversial, and obvious to anyone with even a cursory understanding of Curie’s life, work, and legacy, which makes it all the more bizarre that Radioactive assumes not one viewer could have possibly put these conclusions together without a great deal of help.
Satrapi’s film, which is a run-of-the-mill biopic whenever it isn’t jarringly structured, is quite unashamedly a manual through which a presumably ignorant audience can learn to feel just the right things about this exceptional woman, a Polish immigrant born Maria Sklodowska who, according to Jack Thorne’s script, speaks exclusively in inspirational catchphrases or at insipid expositional length. Watching Marie meet and fall for her husband and lifelong research partner Pierre (Sam Riley) is like watching two convincingly lifelike androids exchange snippets of their respective Wikipedia pages.
There was more to Curie’s life than this, and Radioactive is passingly interested in some of it, including the loss of Pierre, those two Nobel prizes – for which, obviously, Marie had to battle to be acknowledged – and a scandal involving Paul Langevin (Aneurin Barnard). But this all seems somewhat secondary to the science, and to the offputtingly literal technique that Satrapi has developed to emphasize the magnitude of Marie’s discoveries and their long-term effects. After the excellent work she did in adapting her own autobiographical all-time-great graphic novel Persepolis, you might have expected more, or at least better, but here we are nonetheless.
The implication of this ham-fisted literalism is that the audience couldn’t possibly decipher for themselves that, say, discoveries in radiation could help to save a cancer-stricken little boy in 1957 Ohio, or that an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, or that the Chernobyl nuclear power plant melted down in 1986, nor that we could perhaps figure out some of the connections between these events without embarrassingly foreboding dialogue to let us know they’re coming or jarring flashes forward to reiterate the point. At best, this is show-off structuring that often undermines or at least distracts from solid acting work, most especially that of Pike – at its worst, it’s a patronizing insult to the audience’s intelligence.
Radioactive isn’t especially kind to Pike, for that matter, despite its worshipful depiction of Curie as a brilliant mind, a sexually liberated hottie, and a moral exemplar. All the script’s fawning doesn’t give her much to play beyond dignified and determined academic rigor occasionally interrupted by pining for her lost love and overdone hysterical weeping. The two extremes – distractingly robotic and performatively human, as and when – only feel right in a film that is at once both overambitious and not nearly ambitious enough, that is about a very clever woman yet can’t help but depict her formidable intellect by assuming anyone watching is a moron. Then again, if they make it all the way through, perhaps the film’s got a point.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.