2020 | rated PG-13 | starring Rosemund Pike, Katherine Parkinson | directed by Marjane Satrapi | 1 hr 49 mins |
It’s a popular feminist trope that every invention we use today was actually made or discovered by a woman and a man took credit for it – the widely known exception to this being Marie Curie the French scientist who discovered radium and polonium with her husband Pierre Curie and went on to win a 2nd Nobel Prize on her own in Chemistry by presumably a bunch of Nobel committee sexists in 1911 – which for those keeping track was 106 years before Wonder Woman. Radioactive tells the life story of Currie with the always capable Rosemund Pike in the lead role. It’s a period piece biography with a lot of visual spark added by director Marjane Satrapi in what appears to be an attempt to keep the audience awake. Radioactive is a perfectly serviceable 110 minutes that doesn’t seem to trust the inherent interest in it’s own subject, going in one ear and out the other.
Satrapi (who directed the excellent adult animated movie Persepolis) decides that a straightforward telling of Currie’s life would be too much of a traditional bio-pic – I’m right there with her there. Instead she run’s Currie’s story both non-linearly (flashing back and forth to her own childhood and deathbed) and up against the future consequences of the discovery of radium and nuclear power itself. If that sounds epic, it is. We go from the bombing of Japan in World War 2 to the Atom Bomb experiments to the Chernobyl meltdown all in a matter of minutes. It’s the kind of grand scale that would be better serviced in either a 3-night TNT mini-series, a season of Genius or a really committed David Lean-esque 3 hour epic. The question is, is Satrapi telling the story of both Currie and nuclear energy (that, a story of a tremendous discovery that had devastating consequences for the world) or is the movie unable to decide whether it wants to tell the story of Currie or nuclear energy and splitting the difference under a studio mandated running time and PG-13 rating? I suspect that later with neither story getting it’s just due. It’s not just that Radioactive falls into mediocrity, it’s that you can see how with a bit more backing and support it could really be something great.
To that end, let’s talk about pacing. Typically when we praise a movie being well paced it’s a comedy or an action movie that moves along at a good, quick clip. One size, however, does not fit all. Radioactive moves along at that quick clip and it doesn’t work for the movie. It’s actually moving too quickly, skipping over one dramatic set piece after another to get to the next thing and the next and the next as if it’s sprinting to the finish line. It ultimately ends up being a very shallow film that skims over Currie’s romance with Pierre, children, research and fight after fight with the scientific authorities and the yellowdog Parisian media without stopping often to focus on any of it. Occasionally we see on-screen graphics depicting atoms and their behavior but Satrapi is just using them for visual flair – not to explain the more intricate details of what Professor Currie is trying to explain. The Stephen Hawking bio-pic The Theory of Everything does this quite well for Hawking’s work.
Most people are going to skim through Radioactive, see the period costume, the Spark Notes of Marie Currie’s life and the puzzlebox narrative and come away satisfied. But if you’re at a point where you thirst for more knowledge in your bio-pic this one will leave you cold. I would love to see a 3 1/2 hour director’s cut of the film that more fully explores both Currie’s life and moral conflicts as well as thorough vignettes dealing with the future history of radioactive energy. As of now, with the movie just focusing on it’s well-known disasters, Radioactive comes off as anti-nuclear propaganda.