The discovery that would change humanity forever arrives relatively early in Radioactive, the long-awaited biopic of Marie Curie. We’re not 30 minutes in, and she’s already captured the phenomenon of radioactivity, in all its Ectoplasmic-green glow, in a tiny vial.
It happens after a perfunctory montage of beakers and equations, of Marie (Rosamund Pike) and her husband and colleague Pierre (Sam Riley) science-ing for the camera for a little while. The laboratory may be a dingy, underfunded, under-resourced Parisian hovel — Curie refers to the building as a “lean-to” — but the process almost looks easy. Moments later, she’s standing in front of an assemblage of stuffy and skeptical male scientists, informing them, in trailer-ready verbiage, “you have fundamentally misunderstood the atom.”
And so we take her word for it. Radioactive is a decorous film, but it is not a particularly penetrating one, designed so much with the layperson in mind that it rings as intellectually superficial. Perhaps this is to be expected. A Marie Curie film scripted by, say, Aaron Sorkin, would have found poetry in the pentameter of chemistry jargon, breathlessly challenging its audience to keep up with his audacious heroine. This film’s screenwriter, Jack Thorne, adapted the work from Lauren Redniss’ visual nonfiction book Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout, which centralizes not Curie’s science but her fraught personal life.
Radioactive wants to be everything at once. It is an account of a brilliant, controversial, curious, incorrigible mind wrestling with a patriarchal establishment both inside and outside her home. It also endeavors to dramatize the full sweep of Curie’s accomplishments, from the discoveries that led to two Nobel Prizes to her work on the front lines of X-ray medicine in World War I. It even occasionally departs from Curie’s story in stagey flash-forwards exploring the double-edged sword of radioactivity, which is seen treating childhood disease at the Cleveland Clinic, flattening Hiroshima, irradiating Chernobyl.
With so much ambition to cram into less than two hours, Radioactive relies too often on narrative shorthand and clunky, expository dialogue. After we witness, briefly, Curie’s struggle to earn the respect of her male superiors, she tells her sister, “I will go my own way.” As any high-school English student knows, this sort of declaration should be shown to us through the character’s actions, not told to us through her words. When Pierre informs his wife that her discovery has shown promise in shrinking tumors, he adds the mansplaining addendum “2,000 years — cancer — the incurable illness!”—for those of us too slow to catch on.
Radioactive is best when capturing the moments between Marie Curie’s biographical signposts, and letting Pike’s dynamic embodiment grapple with her complicated legacy. Pike initially portrays Curie as a fretful presence, sheepishly bumping into her future husband on the street, and gradually develops a righteousness — and, indeed, an arrogance — that is anything but hagiographic.
Director Marjane Satrapi, most famous for her animated bildungsroman Persepolis, injects the rawest feeling into scenes embodying Curie’s crippling obsession with the green stuff. She may have loved Pierre, but it was her closeness to her discoveries that most subsumed her. Considering her intimate relationship with radioactive material, it’s remarkable she lived to 66, when she ultimately succumbed to aplastic anemia from long-term radiation poisoning.
To this end, the images I’ll remember most from Radioactive involve Curie communing, every night and every morning, with her vial of polonium, its addictive green glow beckoning from her bedside table, just like a smartphone to a millennial.
RADIOACTIVE. Director: Marjan Satrapi; Cast: Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Anna Taylor-Joy, Aneurin Barnard; Distributor: Amazon; Rating: PG-13; Opens: Friday, July 24, on Amazon Prime