Radioactive initially appears to fall into the same shape as countless other science biopics, including The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game. There’s an indisputable genius, in this case Rosamund Pike playing Marie Curie (neé Maria Skłodowska), locked in a battle against institutional pressure and time itself. In their triumph, the scientific hero both compels and alienates those they care about, before rounding on an uncertain look at their legacy. Though this recounting of Curie’s life may well adopt well-worn beats, it does so with narrative flair and a compelling central performance, all of which steers it away from mediocrity.
Radioactive’s strengths come to the fore as the film develops. Pike’s performance gains a steely resolve in the face of xenophobia and institutional hostility, while Thorne’s script comes alive when charting the thrilling, at times terrifying, impacts of Curie’s work. Perceptively, just as Curie reaches her most emotionally unstable, Thorne whisks us away to the historical moment when radioactivity showed the world its deadly volatility.
Though this comparison is aided by the looming shadow of HBO’s triumphant Chernobyl, it underlines the notion that the film is at its sharpest when it frames Curie’s work through two distinct lenses; from the objective standpoint of the present day and through her own high critical and subjective eyes. Even in the film’s final moments, Curie seems poignantly unsure of her impact on the world.
The film’s closing stages boldly shake off the cookie-cutter opening which threatens to stray into mawkishness. Not that an audience should be denied seeing Curie fall in love, but her life is so bursting with intriguing events that it can feel restrictive to recount the ordinary in her extraordinary life. What’s more, there is definitely a playful chemistry between Pike and Sam Riley (Pierre Curie), while this home life does become increasingly important to the movement of the film.
But put simply, Radioactive is better when it’s bolder. The undeniable imagination of graphic novelist and director Marjane Satrapi comes out in subtle ways.The singular vial of glowing green which accompanies Curie throughout the film (and on the poster) is a motif which hints at the dangerous but endlessly compelling work she undertook. In many instances, Curie is left peering at the vial in the dead of night, as though her work is the only light she needs in dark, uncertain times. Despite the challenges, Curie was a remarkable, mercurial figure, and Radioactive goes some way in giving her a powerful and thoughtful portrait.