Friday, July 24, 2020

Radioactive is an Overstuffed Movie About a Scientific Trailblazer

Well, I suppose it's high-time Marie Curie got the movie biopic treatment. After all, Andrew Jackson, Dick Cheney and Christopher Columbus have all gotten their own biopics, why shouldn't Curie? Written by Jack Thorne and directed Marjane Satrapi, Radioactive chronicles the life of Curie beginning with her days as a scientist struggling to get any respect from her male colleagues. Eventually, she partners up with eventual lover Pierre Curie (Sam Riley) and the duo begin to make great breakthroughs in fields related to radium and polonium. Further struggles in Marie Curie's life emerge from how she fails to garner any credit for her scientific innovations as well as her being demonized for carrying on an affair with a married man.

Intercut throughout the story are flash-forwards in time to events of world history that Curie's scientific achievements will make possible. These include a child being cured of a life-threatening disease, the bombing of Nagasaki, and the Chernobyl meltdown. These segments tend to feel like a distraction from more intimate scenes depicting Curie's personal woes. Credit where credit is due, at least they aren't the kind of thing you usually see in British period pieces. Unfortunately, Thorne's resolution to these segments is anti-climatic. Eventually, Marie Curie, on the brink of death, gets to wander these scenes from the future and expresses sorrow to her deceased husband about what her accomplishments have wrought.

"You have no control over it," Pierre reflects, "You tossed a rock into a river, you cannot control the ripples." That may be true but, boy, is that ever a cop-out of a resolution to these flashforward sequences. After referencing how Curie's breakthroughs will help pave the way for some of the greatest horrors ever seen by mankind, Radioactive has nothing wiser to say on the matter than a clunky phrase you'd find in a fortune cookie. This particular flaw is emblematic of how Thorne's script for Radioactive tends to introduce potentially interesting ideas but nips them in the bud before they can fulfill all their potential.

Similarly, Radioactive's early scenes reflect a widely-held notion that Marie Curie had autism. It's already plenty nifty to see an autistic woman headlining a major film, though, admittedly, it'd be better if she was performed by an autistic actor. Additionally, it's great to see a woman inhabit the strong-willed no-BS intellectual role that only men are usually allowed to portray. Unfortunately, as the film goes on, Curie begins to shed any behavioral traits associated with autism. This comes about as a result of Radioactive shifting focus from Curie's unorthodox behavior to an endless series of personal tragedies. The Marie Curie of the first-half of Radioactive feels wholly disjointed from the Marie Curie in the second-half of Radioactive. That makes it hard to get fully emotionally invested in her journey.

This leaves Rosamund Pike with a clumsily-written role to handle. She does decent work portraying Marie Curie, particularly in depicting Curie's mannerisms potentially stemming from autism. It's appreciative that she doesn't just go for easy broad stereotypes like so many neurotypical actors do when portraying people with autism. Unfortunately, the scattered script for Radioactive keeps weighing down Pike's still decent lead performance. Similarly fine but not exceptional is the direction from Marjane Satrapi. Her best work in Radioactive come whenever she's allowed to incorporate heightened filmmaking flourishes to reflect the mindset of Curie. Anyone whose seen Satrapi's 2007 film Persepolis knows that Satrapi has a good handle on character-driven visuals that are as memorable as they are insightful.

Unfortunately, much of Radioactive is kept grounded into reality, which doesn't play to Satrapi's strengths as a filmmaker. But a trippy sequence depicting Marie Curie grieving over the death of Pierre Curie, that sequence certainly does. As green ooze comes rushing out of Pierre's coffin, flashing bright colors dance across the screen while St├ęphane Roche's editing keeps cutting across the past, present, and future. The appropriately disorienting quality of the scene effectively captures just how immersed in woe & confusion Marie Curie is at this point in her life. Pike and Satrapi show off just enough of their best creative impulses to make Radioactive a painless watch. A shame that the script for Radioactive suffers from that overstuffed quality that plagues so many biopic dramas.

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