To assume you can get to the core of a person in two hours is folly and while Marjane Satrapi’s Radioactive never presumes to know completely Marie Curie, the woman standing in the middle of this befuddling and overstuffed biopic, it strives so much to make her an icon, a symbol of determination and strength that the personal feels unimportant, tangential to the life of a woman who was more than the discoveries she made. All vitriol and pride, Radioactive paints a picture of a woman with a set focus, an ironic statement considering this constantly sprawling tale never has one of its own.
Opening on Curie (Rosamund Pike) in her twilight years, reminiscing on her life as she convalesces in a hospital bed, Satrapi, through a script by Jack Thorpe explores Curie’s life from everything to her early rejection by the science community of Paris to the scandals of her later life. Through all of that the possibilities of her discoveries loom large, the life saving and the barbarous and everything in between. Glimpsed through flashes to times long after her death, events like Chernobyl and the advent of radiotherapy are shown like flashes of possibilities racing through Marie’s head, the terrible burden of a lifetime of genius.
Despite adding resonance to some visually bland montages of Marie and husband Pierre (Sam Riley) carrying out experiments you can only hope to barely understand, these asides only take you further away from Marie and her story, a long line of side stories that only makes Marie’s story more blurry. Turning a detailed portrait into a landscape lacking perspective, Satrapi ambitiously fills her film with parts, hoping that little snippets fuse together to tell a full story. Although Thorpe manages to flesh out Pierre, he does so at the expense of Marie and the rest of the Curie family. The personal here is forgettable, its only the science that matters and in that regard, Radioactive misses the point by a mile.
Mistaking the ignored for the forgotten, the Marie painted here is not only self-indulgent but contemptuous. She knows she is brilliant but she never acknowledges that someone else could be too. It doesn’t make her unlikeable, it just makes the science she has devoted her life too seem like currency instead of a passion. When she has made her discoveries the film stalls with nothing left to say that means much. Much of the films late story revolves around her relationship with older daughter Irène (Anya Taylor-Joy) but it never feels important to this version of Marie. Whether or not this is due to Pike’s frequently stiff performance or Thorpe’s painfully blunt dialogue, it makes a dry story that much more impersonal.
An extended montage of Marie crushing rocks for the sake of science is supposed to serve as an analogy for determination but it proves a more apt analogy for the film itself, a tough and arduous slog through scientific montages and informative but uninvolved flashes of the future, all crushed into a solution that only produces the smallest amount of poignant product. Science may require you to be cold and unfeeling, unbiased to the point of analytical, life doesn’t and the Marie Curie depicted here is cold to the point of lifeless.