Radioactive (2019) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A scattershot biopic on Marie Curie’s life and career

I remember well when I came to learn about the life and career of Marie Curie from a little biography book for children around 30 years ago. Although life was pretty hard and difficult for her because of a number of obstacles in front of her, this extraordinary Polish woman persisted anyway as stubbornly following her endless passion toward science, and she eventually became one of the leading scientists in her field in addition to receiving no less than two Nobel Prizes for her enormous academic contribution.

That is why I had some expectation on Marjane Satrapi’s new film “Radioactive”, which attempts to look here and there around Curie’s scientific career and contribution. As a biopic, the movie surely tries something different via its unconventional storytelling approach, and that intrigued me for a while during my viewing, but, despite the commendable performance from its lead actress, the overall result is rather scattershot and middling while not showing much beyond what I already know about its main subjects.

After the prologue scene in 1934, the movie moves back to 1893, when Curie, played by Rosamund Pike, was a young and headstrong student studying science in Paris. When Curie, who was Marie Skłodowska at that time, fiercely protests about how her ongoing study has been constantly interrupted by her insensitive male laboratory colleagues, the professor of her laboratory fires her without any hesitation, and now she has to search for any other laboratory to hire her, but, not so surprisingly, nobody is particularly willing to provide a space for her current scientific research.

While Curie becomes quite frustrated about this situation, there comes an unexpected opportunity via Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), a promising scientist who happens to have his own laboratory and turns out to be quite interested in Curie’s research. As they talk more with each other, she and Pierre find themselves clicking well with each other, and it does not take much time of her to come to work and study in Pierre’s laboratory. Although his laboratory is rather small and shabby, Curie is delighted to find where she can freely study and work at last, and Pierre, who later marries her, always stands by her as her No.1 supporter and collegue.

Their common scientific interest is focused on the possible existence of some unknown radioactive element in uranium ore, and we accordingly see how Curie and her husband diligently working on the detection and purification of that radioactive material in question. First, they needed to crush and pulverize tons of uranium ore, and the following sequence shows us how demanding this research of theirs was in more than one aspect.

However, the movie moves onto their eventual success too quickly without conveying to us much of their Herculean efforts for the successful purification of two new radioactive elements, and it also stumbles in the depiction of the relationship between Curie and her husband. Although Sam Riley did a fairly good job of supporting Pike during their several key scenes, he is mostly limited by his bland character, and that is the main reason why Pierre’s unexpected death in 1906, which was caused by a very unfortunate accident, does not feel that devastating to us.

Moreover, the screenplay by Jack Thorne, which is based on Lauren Redniss’s acclaimed graphic novel “Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout”, frequently alternates between its main narrative and the visual presentation of several historical incidents associated with Curie’s research on radioactivity, and that is often distracting instead of widening our perspective on her scientific contribution. For example, Pierre’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech is intercut with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, and then we later see Curie’s growing awareness of radioactive sickness being juxtaposed with the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, but these and other similar scenes feel blatant and artificial while not generating much dramatic effect.

In case of Curie’s affair with her fellow scientist Paul Langevin (Aneurin Barnard), the movie gives Pike opportunities to express more of her character’s strength and vulnerability, but this part unfortunately fizzles as the movie hurriedly moves onto her significant contribution during the World War I. Although she does not like hospital much due to her persona reason, Curie comes to apply her scientific knowledge on those injured soldiers on battlefields after persuaded by her older daughter Irene (Anya Taylor-Joy, who shines as usual despite her underwritten supporting role), and there is also a small amusing moment when Irene introduces her future husband to her mother, who is not initially amused but then instantly approves of him once she discerns how willing he is to study radioactivity along with her daughter (As many of you know, Irene and her husband also won a Nobel Prize later).

Although it has more style and personality compared to the 1943 biopic film “Madame Curie”, “Radioactive” is not successful enough in my trivial opinion due to several glaring flaws including its weak narrative structure. The movie surely has all the right stuffs for its main goal, but, to our disappointment, it is no more than an admirable failure, and that is a shame considering the sincere efforts from Satrapi and her cast and crew members.

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