While their presence in Hollywood may be overly-pervasive, biopics offer filmmakers a paramount opportunity to explore relevant and often overlooked chapters in history. In the genre’s latest entry Radioactive, the life of scientist Marie Curie is viewed under a microscope, sadly straddling the vivacious pioneer with a standard-issue big-screen treatment.
Radioactive chronicles the history of Marie Curie (Rosamund Pike), who discovered radium alongside her husband Pierre (Sam Riley). Even after her remarkable triumph, Marie finds herself battling against the gender stereotypes of the era, while also coming to terms with the multifaceted nature of her world-changing discovery.
Star Rosamund Pike recommences her prosperous run of reviving real-life figures here (A Private War and Beirut), imbuing energy and agency into Marie’s restless pursuit for progress. Pike thankfully balances the character’s sharp attitude with resonant humanity, with her brash persona acting as a shield from the harsh critiques the figure often faced. Sam Riley makes for a fitting on-screen counterpart as Pierre, developing lived-in chemistry with his co-star that effectively displays the couple’s complicated dynamic. Perhaps Radioactive’s greatest strength lies in Marjane Satrapi’s visceral direction choices (Danny Boyle’s frequent collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle shot the film), as her use of colors and subversive imagery extenuate the character’s emotive states while infusing much-needed vibrancy into its biopic framework.
Like several of its contemporaries, Radioactive ultimately struggles to reinvent the genre’s stale structure. Jack Thorne’s screenplay focuses more on covering bullet points of Marie’s timeline rather than deriving proper depth into each chapter, jumping recklessly in an attempt to convey her full life story. The best biopics often capture their subjects through a finite memoir (Steve Jobs and The Social Network), mainly because the over-ambitious nature of truncating someone’s life work in a two-hour movie rarely breeds a fulfilling experience. This rushed approach impacts the film’s second-half the most, with interesting factoids like Marie’s personal affairs and her involvement in World War I lacking proper attention.
This could be forgiven if Radioactive rendered a substantive throughline with its plethora of thematic concepts. Thorne’s script occasionally wrestles with the tricky nature of scientific discoveries (a battle between the desire to produce positive change versus the commercialization of progress into something potentially dangerous), as well as the still-lingering sexism present in the workplace. What could have been exceedingly relevant to our current ecosystem ends up being woefully underbaked, with Throne’s script offering a few moments of heavy-handed explanation rather than dealing with the complicated implications (a flashforward to nuclear bomb testing during a speech about radium’s danger feels clunky at best).
Radioactive fails to subvert its formulaic delivery, resting on Hollywood conventions to tell a pertinent and exceedingly relevant slice of history.
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