Dir: Marjane Sartrapti. Starring: Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Anya Taylor-Joy, Aneurin Barnard, and Simon Russell Beale. Unrated, 103 mins
Marie Curie deserves her own biopic. Consistently voted the most influential woman in science, the Polish physicist was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, and the first person to win two. Yet in the hands of Marjane Sartrapti – the director and writer behind Oscar-nominated animation Persepolis – Radioactive is disappointingly paint-by-numbers, and often laughably ill-conceived.
Based on a graphic novel of the same name by Lauren Rednis, the film shows Curie reflecting on her life as she lies dying in a Paris hospital in 1934. From there, the film covers the first meeting with her future husband and fellow physicist Pierre Curie (Sam Riley) in 1895, and her subsequent discovery of radium and polonium. Rosumund Pike, usually fantastic, is given scraps to work with in her lead role as Curie, a character reduced from fiercely independent to co-dependent mess by the film’s end.
From the outset, Jack Thorne’s script is crammed with on-the-nose writing that sucks the air out of every scene, as characters ceremoniously announce the film’s themes and their personal motivations. What’s not outright insulting is simply dreary, as the film works through a checklist of biopic essentials: slow-clap standing ovations, invented childhood traumas and romantic tragedy. A recreation of the Hiroshima bombing, used to convey the ramifications of Curie’s discovery, is comically bad. The film later tackles the Chernobyl disaster, and has Curie connect with victims of both apocalyptic tragedies in a dream sequence, as though she is required to absolve herself of guilt for opening Pandora’s Box.
It is moments such as this that make the film's musings on institutional sexism feel hollow. Curie's uphill battles are waved away with one or two lines that begin with “as a woman”. It feels as though the audience isn't trusted to piece together that Curie's struggle for acknowledgement is linked to the male-dominated spaces in which she works.
It’s hard to say where any of the value lies in Radioactive’s retelling of Curie’s life, given how it fumbles the details of her achievements while getting lost in the melodrama of her love life. Its main saving grace is Riley and Pike, who achieve some good chemistry despite the film’s best efforts to neuter it. Radioactive is ultimately undone by writing that transforms a revolutionary woman into a passive, lovesick and eventually near-helpless figure, as it chooses to focus on the fallout of her relationship with Pierre. Satrapi’s usually unique and authoritative voice is smothered by all-too-familiar conventions of the biopic, ultimately boxing in a scientist who was renowned for breaking boundaries.
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