Given the focus in recent years on women STEM pioneers and the success of movies like “Hidden Figures,” a Marie Curie biopic seems long overdue. The strained, self-important “Radioactive” isn’t the one we need, but it’s the one we’ve got, and if it sends audiences off to learn more about the scientist who opened the Pandora’s Box of atomic decay and its (mis)uses, that’s better than nothing.
The movie itself is a little too much. Opening with the aged Curie (Rosamund Pike) collapsing and being raced to an operating room, “Radioactive” takes the form of a biographical flashback, with further flashbacks tucked into the tale along with a few unusual flash-forwards. The main focus is on the years that Marie Curie, born Maria Sklodowska, in Poland in 1867, made her discoveries of the elements radium and polonium with her collaborator and husband, Pierre Curie (Sam Riley).
Both actors are quite good, and the opening scenes effectively dramatize the resistance of the male intellectual elite of Paris to the very idea of a woman scientist. Marie has to fight for her own lab space and is initially hostile to the idea of joining forces with Pierre or any other interloper; by far the best aspect of “Radioactive” is its admiring but clear-sighted depiction of a “difficult” heroine who had no interest in social skills (and who indeed may have been somewhere on the spectrum). Pike understands the woman she’s playing was a genius and that genius is rarely likable; her performance bristles with charismatic impatience.
A shame, then, that the bulk of “Radioactive” is a heavy-handed slog through a fascinating life. The movie is based on “Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout,” a 2010 graphic novel by Lauren Redniss that was a National Book Award finalist, and it has been directed by Marjane Satrapi, whose own graphic novel, “Persepolis” (2000), about her childhood in revolutionary Iran, was co-directed by her into a successful 2007 animated film. Satrapi has made several live-action films since, but “Radioactive,” with a plodding script by Jack Thorne, still somehow feels like a cartoon version of a life, with declamatory dialogue and over-emphasized story beats. Nor is it all that faithful to history. The film has Pierre traveling alone to Stockholm in 1903 to accept the couple’s Nobel Prize (the first of two for Marie) and having a blazing row on his return with a neglected wife who knows she’s “the finer mind” of the two. In fact, both Curies went to Stockholm together, and in 1905.
Pierre disappears at this overlong movie’s midpoint, after which “Radioactive” dramatizes the turn of the Parisian populace against Marie — she had the temerity to become involved with a married colleague (Aneurin Barnard) and to be foreign-born, which was the same as being Jewish for some. There are two daughters, loving and only somewhat ignored, who progress through several actresses before the older one, Irene (who herself became a Nobel-winning chemist), is played by Anya Taylor-Joy (“Emma”). She gets Mama and her X-ray machine out onto the battlefields of World War I by sternly insisting, “You’re Marie Curie. It’s time to make this war your war.”
The riskiest moves in “Radioactive” are the leaps ahead to scenes illustrating the literal fallout of the Curies’ discoveries: The bombing of Hiroshima, the Chernobyl meltdown, radiation treatment for cancer patients. Daring in theory and pretentious in the playing, the gambit falls flat and requires a poetic touch that this relentlessly prosy movie is unable to locate. Marie Curie may have discovered radium, but the chief element of “Radioactive” is tedium.
Directed by Marjane Satrapi. Written by Jack Thorne, based on the book by Lauren Redniss. Starring Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Anya Taylor-Joy. Available on Amazon Prime. 109 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements, disturbing images, brief nudity, a scene of sensuality).