rosamund pike, sam riley

Rosamund Pike is Radiant as Marie Curie, but Radioactive Fails to Ignite a Spark

2/5 glowing green vials.
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Is there a film genre more well-worn, more riddled with cliches than the prestige biopic? Even the less cinema-savvy among us can sing along with the all-too familiar beats. The defining childhood trauma, the struggle for recognition, the romance, the family life, the dark tragic chapter. Do all famous figures share the same narrative, or are filmmakers just lacking in originality?

It’s a question that Radioactive struggles to answer. Based on the graphic novel Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss, the film follows the story of famed scientist and Nobel prize winner Marie Curie. Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) delivers a passionate performance as the prickly, stubborn scientist from her youth to her old age.

This is Pike’s movie, and she imbues the Polish immigrant Maria Salomea Skłodowska with a relentless work ethic and an ever busy mind. The film charts her frustrations as the only woman in a male-dominated field. While Skłodowska is mostly ignored by her peers, she finds a kindred spirit in the charismatic Pierre Curie (Maleficent‘s Sam Riley). The duo display terrific chemistry both as colleagues and as lovers.

Together, they challenge the scientific world with their discovery of the elements polonium and radium, coining the term radioactivity. Their scientific breakthroughs continue as the two start a family, and eventually win the Nobel Prize (which is awarded only to Pierre because sexism.)

The film is engaging, but seems to lose its way after the untimely death of Pierre Curie. The film dutifully hits the major milestones of Marie’s life, while injecting multiple flash-forwards to the effects of radioactivity in history. Director Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) takes detours to the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, the first use of radiation to treat cancer, atomic bomb testing in Los Alamos, and the Chernobyl meltdown. These tragedies are all caused (albeit indirectly) by the very science the Curies were celebrated for.

But these time jumps don’t serve to help the film in any way. They are jarring and distracting from the narrative, de-centering Curie from her own story. It’s a creative risk that never fully pays off. And it’s a shame, because Curie’s life has plenty of drama worth exploring. The film touches on the affair that turns her into a social pariah, as well as the rising tide of anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic sentiments targeted at her (despite not even being Jewish.)

The film also delves into her work during World War I, where she and her daughter Irène spearheaded radiological units to help wounded soldiers on the front lines. It’s a fascinating chapter in Curie’s later life that the film gives short shrift. The film also focuses on the affects of radiation poisoning in both Curies, with help from our favorite period piece sickness trope: someone coughing up blood into a handkerchief.

Still, despite its drawbacks, Pike delivers a terrific performance that is worth the price of admission (or Amazon Prime subscription.) It’s a shame the film itself doesn’t rise to her standards.

Radioactive is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

(image: Amazon Studios)

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Chelsea Steiner
Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. An pop culture journalist since 2012, her work has appeared on Autostraddle, AfterEllen, and more. Her beats include queer popular culture, film, television, republican clownery, and the unwavering belief that 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' is the greatest movie ever made. She currently resides in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, 2 sons, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.