Marie Curie is one of the most famous names in science, so it’s somewhat surprising that there hasn’t been a definitive modern biopic of her. There was the Oscar-nominated Madame Curie back in the 1940s and Isabelle Huppert played the iconic Nobel Prize winner in the 1990s French drama Les Palmes de M. Schutz. Now, though, Persepolis director Marjane Satrapi – whose last film was the terrifically offbeat Ryan Reynolds black comedy The Voices – has attempted to tell the Curie story in the slick period biopic Radioactive.
Rosamund Pike plays Curie, who we meet – after a deathbed framing device set in 1934 – just before she bumps into future husband Pierre (Sam Riley) in a scene framed like a rom-com meet-cute. Indeed, much of the early part of prolific Brit screenwriter Jack Thorne’s script crackles with the energy of a screwball comedy. Much as in the opening of His Girl Friday, this is essentially an intellectual face-off between two devastatingly intelligent, witty individuals, locked in a courtship dance of acerbic banter.
Satrapi’s unique style proves to be an intriguing fit for this early part of the story, weaving an unusual tone around the requisite biopic beats, assisted by a beguiling, sci-fi inspired score from sibling composers Evgueni and Sacha Galperine. The offbeat music lends the early romantic scenes a deeply strange quality, as a fire burns symbolically behind them when they share their first kiss, while the score seems to communicate an almost cosmic element to this bond.
Radioactive marks Rosamund Pike’s latest terrific performance in a slightly muddled biopic, coming hot on the heels of the middling Marie Colvin story A Private War. Just as in that movie, she brings a determined complexity to Curie, who appreciates and respects her husband while also remaining fully aware that she has to work harder than anybody else to convince the rest of the world that she’s every bit as valuable as Riley’s swaggering, charismatic Pierre.
But after the film hits a midway tipping point, it devolves into something less focused and considerably less sure of where it’s placing its feet. Satrapi depicts Curie experiencing visions and nightmares about her creation, while clunky flash-forward sequences to subsequent historical events like the Hiroshima atomic bomb and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster as if the movie is wagging its fingers at Curie’s innovation for the way in which it came to be used.
Jack Thorne’s script also mishandles key elements of Curie’s story, not least the media and public slut-shaming of her in the face of an affair with a colleague, which never really gets the punch it deserves. The third act focuses on the ways in which Curie and her daughter (played as a young woman by Anya Taylor-Joy) used her invention during the First World War, but feels saggy and undramatic, sapping the movie of the momentum and fizz that made its first half so compelling.
But Radioactive emerges as a solid biopic, which foregrounds yet another towering performance by the terrific Rosamund Pike. It stumbles and blunders when it tries to examine the impact of Curie’s work beyond her own time but, as a story of two brilliant scientists finding kindred spirits in each other, it manages an impressive, effervescent chemical reaction.
Dir: Marjane Satrapi
Scr: Jack Thorne
Cast: Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Aneurin Barnard, Anya Taylor-Joy, Katherine Parkinson, Simon Russell Beale
Prd: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Paul Webster
DOP: Anthony Dod Mantle
Music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine
Run time: 110 mins
Radioactive is released on 20th March.