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“Radioactive” is not a bomb

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Courtesy of Amazon Studios
2.5stars
Cast: Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Anya Taylor-Joy, Simon Russell Beale
Director: Marjane Satrapi
Release Date: July 24, 2020

The older I get, the more I think there is a fundamental flaw in the old “timeline” model of history.

Yes, history is linear, in a way – you’re born, you live, you die. But the story of a single person doesn’t just end with their death.

A more appropriate analogy may be a rock in a pond. When you throw the rock into the pond, it will make a big splash, but it will also create ripples that go on and on and on. The same goes for historical figures whose lives, work and discoveries continue to impact us years after their deaths.

Perhaps the cleverest aspect of “Radioactive,” a new biopic of Marie Curie, is that it ascribes to this ripple view of history. It not only covers the biggest hits of Curie’s extraordinary life but also the ripples of her work that have been felt throughout history, from the bombing of Hiroshima to the Chernobyl disaster to the rise of radiation treatments for cancer.

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Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Is it a bit shocking to see Madame Curie (Rosamund Pike) interacting with a firefighter burned by the Chernobyl disaster? Yes. But it also feels right in a way – an acknowledgement of how one life touches countless others even decades after death.

This may be the cleverest touch in a film that could have used more of them. “Radioactive” has a surfeit of visual style and a killer lead performance by Pike, but it is too often undermined by a conventional script and lots of dry expository dialogue. It’s just fine, but one can’t help but wish that it was as defiantly unconventional as Curie was.

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Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The film hits all the beats you’d expect it to, although some have questioned whether the facts have been fudged for dramatic effect. But the big accomplishments are there intact – Curie’s two Nobel Prizes, her discovery of two previously undiscovered elements, her work developing mobile radiography units during World War I. It’s all quite interesting stuff, especially the third act during the war, which was a chapter of Curie’s life I was largely unfamiliar with.

The story is buoyed by some drop-dead gorgeous cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle, who beautifully captures the white streams of light in Curie’s laboratory and the sickly glowing green of the radium that Curie discovers.

The creative flourishes of director Marjane Satrapi are also appreciated – most notably those flash-forwards to the impacts of Curie’s scientific discoveries. Some critics have found these scenes overly precious and distracting, and Satrapi may use the device one too many times. But this is a nice way of showing the full scope and breadth of a pretty extraordinary life.

Pike’s performance also goes a long way to making Curie come alive 86 years after her death. Pike imbues her with all sorts of human complexity –  her Curie is feisty and ambitious, tender and fragile, often in the same scene. It’s a truly excellent performance.

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Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Satrapi’s film could have used more performances like that since all the supporting players come off pretty flat in comparison to Pike. Recruiting actors like Sam Riley, Anya Taylor-Joy and Simon Russell Beale doesn’t help as much as it should.

But the real problem that sucks the life out of “Radioactive” is the script by Jack Thorne – particularly the dialogue. This is not the way real people talk – sentence after sentence of expository dialogue spelling out both the science and emotions on screen. After a while, it becomes a little insulting that Thorne doesn’t think we can figure these things out for ourselves.

I wish that Satrapi had indulged in a few more of her creative flourishes, which elevate the more conventional biopic material. A lot of “Radioactive” plays like every other great man/woman biopic that has been churned out by Hollywood in the last decade or so, which is disappointing.

Still, there is just enough of Curie’s defiant unconventionality in “Radioactive” (rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, brief nudity and a scene of sensuality) to merit a recommendation. It might not shine as bright as other films in this genre, but it is also definitely not a bomb.

About the author

Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves.  He can be reached at staticandscreen@gmail.com.

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