In Marjane Satrapi’s biopic Radioactive, which portrays the scientific discoveries of Marie Curie (Rosamund Pike), there’s a flashforward to the bombing of Hiroshima that includes a questionably bad visual pun. We’re shown the interior of the Enola Gay bomber, then the Little Boy bomb, then a little boy, on the ground, throwing a paper airplane. Just that on its own is pretty corny, but wait… it gets worse: The cap of the mushroom cloud dissolves perfectly into the outline of Curie’s hairdo as she sits in her lab, presumably worried about the future of science. It’s one of those dissolves that comes off only one of two ways: It’s either visually impressive or eye-rollingly corny. The one in Radioactive, makes you roll your eyes at the idea of mass death on a historic scale. There are other examples of questionable artistic intent in Radioactive, including additional glimpses into the future and montages inspired by spiritualism and dance. Yet still the clichés are plentiful: terminal illness indicated by blood on a hankie, the cloying sight of an audience slowly standing up and clapping. The only consistent distraction from the corniness is the fact that the movie looks like a high-price cologne/perfume commercial, in which Curie and her husband, Pierre (Sam Riley), are always found in romantic Paris backdrops and interiors. What could it be? Radioactivity for Men or Radium No. 3?
In fact, Satrapi, a graphic novelist turned director who is best known for adapting, Persepolis, her own autobiographical graphic novel into an animated film, wants us to believe Curie’s life was really a love story. After an opening scene set in the 1930s, we flashback to the 1890s and see the first chance meeting between Marie, who is then still known as Maria Skłodowska, and her fellow scientist Pierre. She is headstrong. He is patient. As it turns out, they are both interested in the phenomenon of radioactivity. This will lead them to spend a lot of time around radioactive elements and each other, resulting in romance, marriage, and lethal exposure to radiation. There are children, too, including Irène Curie, who like her parents, would go on to win the Nobel Prize. At one point, she abruptly turns into a young woman played by Anya Taylor-Joy.
It’s very easy to imagine a stranger and more interesting film (or one that lives up to Radioactive‘s visual ambition or, some might call, excesses) making something of these gothic proximities of romance and death and the bizarre circumstances of Pierre’s demise. Yet, we don’t get that. Though the script tells nearly as much about Marie Curie’s sex life as her research, it’s a majority of the time that the film follows the template of the other lackluster science biopics (i.e. The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything). However, one must give credit where it’s due: The chemistry between Pike’s poise and Riley’s delightfully fuzzy voice is enough to convince you that you are watching a good movie, at least for roughly the first twenty or so minutes.
It’s after that where the troubles start, as the incoherent love story begins competing with the worst tropes of the biographical drama. Most of us know, at best, two concrete things about Marie Curie: She won two Nobel Prizes involving in her discovery and usage of the scientific element Radium, and died from the long-term effects of exposure to radiation. And there isn’t much more to be gleaned from Radioactive. Chronologies are fudged. Events, motivations, and conflicts are invented out of whole cloth. And while that’s not necessarily a problem, it’s just the ones that they bring are pretty goofy — especially, the one about how Marie’s entire career was motivated by an extreme phobia of hospitals.
But, on a larger scale, Radioactive neither fulfills a biography’s basic duty of illuminating the life and times of its subject nor does it offer a compelling artistic vision or drama as a substitute for giving the hard facts. Satrapi strains to make the movie aesthetically interesting by deploying an intermittently ’50s-esque score, cutaways to objects that the characters are speaking about, and a sequence in which Marie imagines Pierre’s coffin by glowing, serpentine dancers. But all this high-end kitsch can’t cover up another conventionally dull biopic — the kind that sees a subject looking back on their entire life and ends with a very long slideshow of onscreen text — that slowly swallows all the attempts of genre breaking. It may admirably attempt to eschew some of the biopic traditions, it’s just that Radioactive does so without offering a fully eccentric approach or even just delivering on a compelling display of its subject.
Radioactive is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video