Marie Curie is a momentous figure in history: the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only woman to win twice. She discovered two elements, radium and polonium, and conducted pioneering research in radioactivity. This work led to nuclear fission itself, her legacy reaching throughout history, from the atomic bomb to Chernobyl to present-day nuclear power. While it’s unfortunate that she’s been given the traditional biopic treatment, director Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) attempts to enliven such a formula with colorful visual flourishes that recall the eccentric stylings of one Danny Boyle. Satrapi’s experience in animation is evident, with some images so magisterial and aided by subtle effects work that one could be forgiven for mistaking them for photo-real paintings.
She also utilizes flash-forwards conveying the sometimes tragic results of Curie’s discoveries. These potentially interesting vignettes are somewhat undone by tonal dissonance, as they often feel like they belong in a different film altogether. What does hold the film together are the performances by Rosamund Pike as Curie and Sam Riley as her husband Pierre. Their relationship is central to Radioactive‘s narrative arc and is often used to remind us of the human being buried underneath Marie’s stubborn exterior. She’s written not unlike many a character played by Benedict Cumberbatch: egotistical, initially unfriendly, with a possible personality disorder. Marie’s the arrogant scientist with a chip on her shoulder, and a sensible one at that. She’s constantly having to navigate a pitiable minefield of misogynist obstacles, and it’s steeled her against trusting the men around her, including Pierre.
Unlike its subject, Radioactive reaches for greatness and often comes up short. Take the ending, the inevitable result of a frame story wherein Marie is hospitalized in her later years following a life of avoiding hospitals at all costs. Her life is literally flashing before her eyes, and before she goes, before the film closes, she meets her late husband once again. Pierre joins her at bedside and offers his hand with a single, moving gesture. “Let’s leave the hospital now,” he says to her. Instead of ending on such a wonderful note, Satrapi chooses to follow them down an empty hallway as they discuss their life together, telling us what we already know. It’s never a good thing when a script chooses to discuss so many themes so directly. However, it is a good thing that Satrapi has a keen eye for color and flights of fancy. Her style saves Radioactive from the musty archives of many biopics past.
P.S. Anya Taylor-Joy appears as Curie’s oldest daughter for all of five minutes.