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Welcome to the new age – ‘Radioactive’

July 27, 2020
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There are a handful of scientific figures whose names are common knowledge. These are the scientists who have so transcended their disciplines as to become part of the cultural fabric. It’s a short list. And if you want to talk about women on that list, well … there’s really only one, for better or worse.

Marie Curie is the first female scientist that many people ever learn about. For many, she might be the only female scientist they ever learn about. She is an iconic figure, one of just four people to win multiple Nobel Prizes, having won for both physics and chemistry.

It’s no surprise that such an icon would have her story represented on film. The latest attempt to cinematically share the legacy of Marie Curie is “Radioactive,” currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. It’s an attempt to reckon with the legacy of Curie’s work, looking back on her life as a scientist while also trying to come to terms with how her discoveries have impacted the world.

It’s a noble effort, but unfortunately, it never quite coalesces. Directed by Marjane Satrapi from a screenplay by Jack Thorne (adapted from Lauren Redniss’s 2010 book of the same name), the film tries a little too hard to be “important.” All the awards season checkboxes are ticked, but the pieces simply don’t fit together in the way that they should. That’s not to imply there’s nothing here – there are some interesting filmmaking choices and Rosamund Pike is exceptional as Curie. It just doesn’t quite achieve the heights to which it transparently aspires, ultimately falling a bit short.

In the waning years of the 19th century, Marie Sklowdowska (Pike) is seeking support. She is a brilliant scientific mind, producing impeccable and interesting work. However, her status is undermined due to her gender; she’s unable to gain the respect or support of her peers; noted physicist Gabriel Lippmann (Simon Russell Beale, “The Lehman Trilogy”) is particularly unhelpful.

Marie’s professional and personal lives both receive a significant boost when she crosses paths with Pierre Curie (Sam Riley, “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”), a fellow scientist who has his own issues with the establishment. He’s familiar with her work and offers her space in which to continue it; despite initial misgivings, she slowly grows to trust him, both as a colleague and – eventually – as a husband.

The fruits of the pair’s labor? The discovery of two brand new elements – radium and polonium – and their properties. Specifically, the fact that they emit waves of energy on their own, a phenomenon Marie Curie dubs “radioactivity.” That latter discover leads to a Nobel Prize, albeit one that is initially offered up to Pierre alone (though he makes a point to credit Marie’s work).

But there are unexpected consequences to their discovery. Poor health and illness follows those who work with these new elements – and tragedy strikes, upending the Curies and their young and growing family. And as Marie grows older, she’s left to confront the reality of what her work truly means, both to her and to the world.

Interspersed through this retelling of Curie’s story are moments outside of her life, from the years after her eventual death. These glimpses – of atomic bombs and cancer treatments and reactor meltdowns – illustrate just how far-reaching the discovery of radioactivity is. Her work significantly shaped the path of the 20th century.

“Radioactive” just misses being really good; it never quite manages to settle into a consistent groove. The regular shifts from Curie’s story to the future set pieces don’t work; while the film is clearly trying to seamlessly integrate these digressions, they instead serve only to jar the viewer loose from the primary narrative, ultimately proving counterproductive. Frankly, the movie would be considerably better without them – it’s Curie’s story that we’re engaged with, not the clumsy efforts to marry her accomplishments to the future they helped to create.

That said, when we’re in Curie’s story, “Radioactive” is far more effective. Marie Curie’s story is a truly fascinating one, a tale of intellectual brilliance and social miscalculation. She’s an iconic figure in the history of science, one whose value to the world needs no illustration. It’s a solid period offering, visually interesting and energetic – the sort of film that will prove to be a welcome introduction to the great woman’s accomplishments.

And speaking of great – Rosamund Pike is wonderful. Many of the film’s rough edges are smoothed by the excellence of her performance. These sorts of decades-spanning roles are never easy, with makeup and other aging effects at work. Marie Curie was a complicated person, irascible and demanding and arrogant while also being sensitive and loving and thoughtful. She contained multitudes – a vibe that Pike evokes beautifully. In a movie whose award-worthy aspirations largely fell short, Pike’s performance is an exception.

The supporting cast is a little more uneven. Riley is great as Pierre Curie, walking the line between evoking his own brilliance and elevating the transcendent intellect of his wife. He plays Curie with an amiable charm that offsets the fiery Pike nicely. Sian Brooke does well in a thankless role as Marie’s sister Bronia, while Aneurin Barnard is effective (if a bit flat) as Marie and Pierre’s colleague Paul Langevin. Anya Taylor-Joy shows up three-quarters of the way through the movie for a few scenes; she’s fine. Meanwhile, the collection of old white science guys dutifully harumphs its way through the film without making much of an impression.

“Radioactive” could have been better. It probably should have been better. But while I applaud the boldness, the truth is that the structural choices don’t click. However, thanks to some great work from Rosamund Pike, we still get a solid tribute to a scientific great.

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 27 July 2020 12:13

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