When done right biopics can give us spectacular insight into some of the most amazing and influential people the world has ever seen. When done wrong they can be a stain on the subject’s successes painting a false picture or underwhelming interpretation of their fame or infamy. It’s rare that you find a biopic that falls somewhere in the middle, succeeding in capturing why its subject is so fascinating but failing to provide an engaging or memorable experience that leaves a lasting impression. Such is the case with “Radioactive”, a recently released picture focusing on the life and scientific discoveries of Marie Curie whose pioneering research led to breakthroughs in the study of radioactivity. Based on a graphic novel by Lauren Redniss and directed by cartoonist and filmmaker Marjane Satrapi, “Radioactive” is, for all intents and purposes, a rather unique biographical film, but its attempts at bucking traditional storytelling formulas fail to compliment the leading performance by Rosamund Pike or the fascinating history of Curie and her research making for a movie that is, to put it quite bluntly, underwhelming.
“Radioactive” sees Pike portray Curie as she meets and marries her research partner Pierre Curie (Sam Riley) and discovers elements like polonium and radium on her way to earning several Nobel Prizes. Along the way we learn about the struggles she faced in her personal life, the prejudice she endured and witnessed as a naturalized-French citizen of Polish decent prior to and during World War I while we also witness how her scientific breakthroughs impacted medical procedures, weapons of war and energy through time jumps. I’ll start off by saying that Marie Curie is definitely a woman worthy of a biographical film. Her work resulted in not only the discovery of new elements but, for better or worse, helped pave the path of world history over the past century. You don’t become the only woman with multiple Nobel Prize wins for nothing and this film does successfully delve into not only her genuine drive for discovery but also presents her as a flawed human being who makes divisive decisions and regrets the damage her discoveries create.
It helps when you have an actress as good as Rosemond Pike in front of the camera too. Pike does a fine job providing nuance and sincerity for Curie presenting us with a questionable person who just happened to be one of the greatest minds of her time. Never once do we see Curie sporting a sense of superiority. Sure, she does feel she deserves more credit than she’s given, but those emotions are driven by the sexism and prejudice of the time. She’s a scientist who regrets the damage her work has done to her partners, who is frightened by the idea of doing her research without the help of her husband despite wanting to be taken more seriously as an individual, who engages in affairs, who puts her science above her human emotions. It’s quite fascinating to see such an iconic individual portrayed with an understanding that she was, indeed, simply human at her core. By making Curie feel more flawed the filmmakers and Pike provide us with a famous mind who is much more relatable. I watched this movie with my mother and there were times that she would wholeheartedly denounce Curie as a person while also acknowledging how brilliant she was and how significant her studies were to science. This is how a figure SHOULD be handled in the medium. Biopics aren’t about glorifying the subject, they’re about pulling back the curtain and one thing “Radioactive” does well is shining a light on the tragic flaws hidden behind a beautiful and brilliant mind.
What “Radioactive” does wrong though is it fails to engage the viewer beyond its presentation of Curie. That’s not for a lack of effort though. Director Marjane Satrapi and writer Jack Thorne make a valiant attempt to defy genre conventions by giving viewers a look at how Curie’s research led to certain events and discoveries in history beyond her time through short but jarring time jumps including showcasing the invention of the atomic bombs, the Chernobyl disaster, and several medical breakthroughs. Sadly these interwoven jumps don’t blend well with the story being told and usually happen at random without context. This approach might be a unique way to examine the effects of the scientist’s research, and fit the graphic novel origins of the story, but they take away from the flow of the narrative and, what’s worse, the way it’s all presented does nothing to draw you in and keep your attention. Aside from the performers who make the characters relatable and engaging, the writing, editing and story structure do little to fascinate beyond the surface level leaving a brilliant scientist’s discoveries feeling hollow and tedious to understand. Generic writing and a lack of nuance make for an overall middling viewing experience at best.
“Radioactive” tries hard. It’s attempts to reinvent the story structure of the typical biopic unfortunately do more harm than good and a lack of inventive writing or engaging storytelling only do minimal justice to the brilliant discoveries of its subject. The acting however helps add some much needed sincerity and the one aspect of the story that is worthy of praise is its ability to humanize Curie while never forgetting how important her discoveries were and the personal and professional struggles that she had to face to see them through. On one hand it’s a fascinating character study done right but on the other it’s a simply passable biopic that fails to retain viewer’s attention or interest in Curie’s magnificent accomplishments. So you see my dilemma. What it comes down to for me though is watchability and “Radioactive” is more interesting than it is watchable. It’s not something I ever need, nor want to experience again. It has enough redeemable qualities to warrant at least one viewing if for no other reason than to see how great performances and an uncompromising examination of the flawed humanity of a character can make a world of difference.