Radioactive (2019)

Pioneer. Genius. Rebel.

Director Marjane Satrapi’s, Persepolis (2007), film Radioactive is an unbalanced and ultimately bland portrayal of Marie Curie, perhaps the best-known female scientist of all time. Through her pioneering work in the field of discovering the elements Radium and Polonium, she was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, an honor she achieved twice. Curie’s discoveries changed the course of human history in innumerable ways; from the invention of the x-ray and what would become chemotherapy, to the use of uranium and other elements in warfare and nuclear science. In an era where biographical films are big business, it seemed inevitable that Curie would make her way to the screen in a large-scale production. Unfortunately, the trope heavy and tonally confused film that eventuated does little to engage the viewer, leaving a confusing portrait of Curie that characterizes her more as a romantic and tragic heroine than one of the greatest scientists in the world.

Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl (2014), is given the task of embodying Maria Sklodowska, the young science prodigy who fought the all-male University system to try to find lab space for her ground-breaking experiments, who would later become the lauded Mme Marie Curie. Although the film attempts to eschew a traditional narrative associated with many biographical features by combining elements that exist outside the narrative framework of Curie’s life, it ultimately adopts a linear structure that takes us through her life in a roughly chronological sequence. We first meet Marie in the moments leading up to her death by radiation-induced anemia, and we follow her progress as a scientist of great note; mostly through her relationship with the university that she worked at. Headed by Professor Lippmann (Simon Russell Beale), this relationship personifies her fight against an almost exclusively male system that resents her intrusion as both a woman and a foreigner, which is a key theme throughout the piece.

The art of science

The audience is introduced to her most essential personal relationship, that of the fêted scientist Pierre Curie played by Sam Riley, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016), whom she physically bumps into on the streets of Paris whilst she is reading a book on microbiology. The chemistry between Pierre and Marie is almost instantaneous, although Marie does not fall easily into the relationship. It is mostly his offer of additional lab space that first forces her to form a begrudging partnership with the fellow scientist due to the university cutting her funding. Marie is characterized in many aspects as hard-headed and often cold; however, her twin passions of science and Pierre compete for dominance within her. It is their domestic relationship that drives the dramatic tension in the film rather than their scientific achievements, which effectively renders the excitement over the scientific process inert. Instead of showing in detail the immense amount of time and energy the Curies invested into the process, much of the science is diluted into expository dialogue and montage sequences, which makes the immediate nature of their work relatively featureless.

In eschewing the showing of their work, Satrapi instead concentrates on creating a new narrative thread that moves out of the lived timeline of the main characters and visualizes the long-term application of their work. The audience is jolted into the future as a doctor treats a young cancer patient with chemotherapy or more tragically explores the bombing of Hiroshima, the Atomic bomb trials in Nevada, and the tragedy of Chernobyl. The ethics involved in Curie’s great accomplishment are explored through these visually rich and complex vignettes, but ultimately the film doesn’t pass judgment on her or science. Instead, it posits that, almost inevitably, humans are flawed, and progress comes at a cost. The film addresses this in numerous ways, from Curie’s own death due to radiation poisoning to her understanding that there is an inevitable cost to her experiments when other scientists working with radium become ill.

By the light of radium

By choosing to film Lauren Redniss’ non-fiction graphic novel based on Curie’s life, Satrapi imbues the work with a sense of her own experiences that she documented in her autobiographical graphic novel and film Persepolis. Marie, despite her immense achievements, remains an outsider in Parisian society. An infamous affair with fellow scientist Paul Langevin, played by Aneurin Barnard, Dunkirk (2017), leads to Marie being a victim of xenophobic shunning from Parisian society. Crowds shout at her outside her home, calling her a ‘dirty Jew Pole’ who should ‘go home.’ Curie weathers the insults to herself with stoic aplomb and is only perturbed when it starts to impact upon how her professorship and science is regarded.

Rosamund Pike is a fit cast as Curie; she is an intelligent actor with the ability to balance an icy exterior with a deeply passionate core. However, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that the screenplay by Jack Thorne, Enola Holmes (2020), gives her little to do but to switch between two fairly constricted modes. Curie seems at times so distant that, textually, she characterizes herself as a bad mother, yet at other times her passion — especially for Pierre — causes the film to veer into romantic drama. Small flourishes, such as Marie sleeping with a bottle of radium, are there to remind the audience that she is a brilliant and driven scientist, but sadly it becomes a slight concessional token. It isn’t until much later in the film when her daughter Irène, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch (2015), is an adult and burgeoning scientist of note that we see Marie devoting herself with urgency to her inventions, in this case, a portable x-ray, on the battlefields of WWI France.

Like mother, like daughter

Radioactive isn’t all bad news. The cinematography by Academy Award winner Anthony Dod Mantle, Slumdog Millionaire (2008), is spellbinding. Because of the difficulty in showing a lot of the scientific process, Mantle creates bursts of color and astral trails to create a sense of the enormity of discovery. These scenes are often accompanied by a pulsing electronic soundtrack that differentiates them from the main biographical narrative. These flourishes elevate the film as much as they confuse it. The narratives set in the future work as set pieces, but they seem randomly interspersed and cause an uncomfortable deconstruction within the text. No doubt Satrapi’s intention was to give a sense of immediacy to Curie’s work and illustrate her legacy, but despite how well-crafted they are, they don’t gel structurally with the rest of the film, and once the audience is returned to the primary narrative it seems somewhat paltry and staged in comparison to their expansive nature.

Satrapi’s ambition in Radioactive is to move beyond a generic biographical story, yet it so often falls back into the very tropes it was hoping to avoid. Marie’s journey from prodigy to grand dame seems remarkably flat — not because her story isn’t fascinating, but because the film still relies on well-worn set pieces to tell the story. The fight to be recognized as a pioneering genius isn’t elevated beyond a few standard scenes that are worn clichés. Marie is cheered on by mostly women in one scene leading to the men joining into rousing applause.

Marie and Pierre Curie astonish the academy.

In others, she repeatedly butts heads with Beale’s Lippmann, who represents the establishment that views her with distrust and discrimination, yet in most instances, she overcomes the objections with relative ease. Her interior life is more difficult for the filmmaker to capture and is often reduced to Marie acting in a vaguely agitated and impatient manner, which explodes in uncharacteristic outbursts of emotion. Sam Riley’s Pierre seems to spend an inordinate amount of time coaxing her to act in a reasonable manner in situations manufactured to create dramatic tension, which ultimately characterize Curie as mercurial and difficult, without first placing a specific obstacle that she is trying to overcome as sufficient reason for her behavior.

In the end, Radioactive fails to give the audience what most will want when they approach the film: a sense of knowing Curie and some kind of identification with her various struggles and triumphs. For a movie about science, it’s disinterest in the process of science is a locus of frustration. Satrapi’s ambition falls short of the mark in finding a point where the audience can really feel the brilliance of Curie; there is no real ‘eureka’ moment that would anchor the work, and as such, the tears tend to lack the sweat that is expected to precede them. Without those moments, the film seems to be a small affair with the enormity of Curie’s work grafted into it in a clumsy manner, which ultimately upsets the very effect that she was trying to achieve.

2 / 5 – Average

Reviewed by Nadine Whitney

Radioactive is released through Studio Canal Australia