FILM REVIEW – RADIOACTIVE. With Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Simon Russell Beale, Sian Brooke, Anya Taylor-Joy. Written by Jack Thorne. Directed by Marjane Satrapi. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, brief nudity and a scene of sensuality. 109 minutes. Available on Amazon Prime.
Sigh of the Geiger
RADIOACTIVE has so much going for it that it’s frustrating when it takes a wrong turn. While focusing on the life of Marie Curie, it is powerful and inspiring. When it tries to transcend her life and times, it reaches for the stars and falls short.
Rosamund Pike offers a solid performance as Marie, a brilliant scientist who has two things going against her: she’s a woman in a field otherwise entirely male and she’s Polish trying to establish her work in France. She meets Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), a scientist who is an exception, as entranced with her work as he is with her. They join their lives and their science.
As depicted here, it’s a hard sell for her. She has to work so hard to gain any traction for her work that she’s loathe to involve anyone else in it. Pierre tells her he lives for collaboration. He wants to help her but he also wants her to help him. When their discovery of radioactivity leads to the Nobel Prize, initially it’s offered just to him. He insists that her essential work be recognized as well, leading to her to become the first woman to win a Nobel.
Pierre is a complex figure as well. His openness to exploring new ideas makes him an ideal partner for Marie, but it also means he dabbles in the fashionable interest in spiritualism of the time. When he dies, Marie continues her work–earning a second Nobel in her own right–but questions the choices she’s made in her life, urging her daughter Irene not to follow in her path. (Irene did, and would eventually earn her own Nobel.)
Where the film goes wrong is attempting to place the Curie’s work on radium and radioactivity into a retrospective of 20th century history dealing with atomic weapons and nuclear power. For no discernible reason, the story is interrupted for flash-forwards to the bombing of Hiroshima and the Chernobyl disaster. Are we supposed to hold the Curies responsible for what later generations made of their discoveries, or is this an attempt at irony? The filmmakers themselves seem so unsure what their point is that after these interruptions we return to Marie without any additional insight.
Pike is marvelous as Marie Curie, showing both her strengths and weaknesses, and making her accessible to those to whom Curie is only a historical figure. One wishes there was more of her relationship with Pierre, particularly because Riley’s performance makes it clear this was an ideal pairing of minds and personalities. Together the two of them achieved things that neither might have done on their own, her subsequent accomplishments notwithstanding.
“Radioactive” is a near-miss, proving moving at one moment, and annoying at the next. It’s worth seeing, but one is left wishing for the film that might have been.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.