It’s unclear exactly why an avant-garde, cinematic biopic of the adult life of famed scientist Marie Curie was needed, but such is the world of film in 2020.
Opting not for the sidesplitting, yet emotional dramedy that powered 2016’s “Hidden Figures,” the demure albeit strange film “Radioactive” from director Marjane Satrapi presents Curie in a traditional light before mixing her journey to multiple Nobel Prizes with flashforward dream states to the conflicted impact of her work.
The result is a tonal mismatch of middling standards that wastes a strong performance from its lead actress and the bold, audacious cinematography that will likely keep some viewers watching the largely frustrating film until its conclusion.
Based on a graphic novel on the life of Madame Curie, “Radioactive” primarily focuses on the scientific work of the first female professor at the Sorbonne over a 20-year-period from the 1890s through the 1910s as she digs into the possibility of new elements, discovering their instability and becoming a French sensation in more ways than one.
As Marie, Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike gives a measured, yet powerful performance that comes across both as cold and abrupt yet endearing in a way that viewers want to rally behind her Marie.
The singularity of her work often overwhelms the performances of others sharing the screen with her, which is probably to be intended in most circumstances but plays a tricky part in the chemistry between Pike’s Marie and Sam Riley’s Pierre.
It’s easy to tell that the standoffishness of their pairing is a decided part of Pike’s approach to the role, but the clinical nature only works for her performance as Riley is more stiff than stoic. In smaller moments when viewers are seeing Pierre through Marie’s eyes, there is a small amount of warmth to be felt towards Riley’s performance, but for the most part, Pike feels as if she’s acting to thin air around her.
Anya Taylor-Joy – beyond exceptional in “Emma” earlier this year – does well in a lackluster smaller role as Curie’s elder daughter Irène, adopting Pike’s mannerisms and demeanor subtly, but with intention. The remainder of the supporting cast is as unexceptional as Satrapi treats them in the film.
“Radioactive” spends more time on the science the Curies discovered together than their personal romance, although how the film approaches Pierre’s impact on Marie after his death is perhaps the eccentricity of the screenplay that works the best and provides for the most interesting moments in the final act.
Screenwriter Jack Thorne plays with the narrative structure by throwing audiences up and down the historical timeline at will, opening with Marie’s final moments and tossing in sequences of her youth in Poland as well as the consequences of her discoveries long after her death seemingly at random.
To find viewers wandering through the remnants of Chernobyl is a puzzling detour that challenges the notion of Marie’s credibility as the heroine of her own tale, with Thorne almost positing her as anti-hero or incapable of seeing the downside of her discovery. “Radioactive” fails to reckon with these charges as much as it probably needs to for Thorne’s argument to be successful with audiences.
There is an impressive visual style to “Radioactive” that’s perhaps a bit too heavy-handed with darkness and shadows in scenes of deep black, but the cinematography of Anthony Dod Mantle has a kinetic edge that reflects Satrapi’s overall vision for her film.
The film’s strengths – an exceptional Pike, engaging and dynamic visuals and a haunting score – keep “Radioactive” from being a waste of time, although Satrapi’s latest feature isn’t really worth seeking out on Amazon Prime by anyone other than the most curious of ardent cinephiles.