Every now and then I ask myself, "Why the hell isn't Rosamund Pike a much bigger star than she is?" While Pike has received critical praise for her recent roles in biopics 'A Private War' and 'A United Kingdom', one could argue her mainstream success hasn't progressed as far as the 'Gone Girl' hype would have you anticipate. With this in mind, her casting as renowned physicist Marie Curie in a biopic for the wide viewership that comprises of Amazon Prime's subscribers seems like the perfect recipe to get her back in the mainstream conscious. Sadly, even though Pike tries her best in 'Radioactive', the end result is a dull and bloated experience that bears no resemblance to its headstrong subject matter.
'Radioactive' recounts most of Marie Curie's adult life, using an older, radiation-poisoned Curie as a narrative bookend. Following a traditional flashback structure, Curie reflects on her gender-based rejections from laboratories in France, her relationship with husband and scientific partner Pierre Curie (Sam Riley, 'Maleficent'), the tensions surrounding her Nobel Prize wins (Curie is the only woman in history to have won twice), and the horrific revelation that radioactivity might cause more harm to the human body than good. It's enough to test even the strongest of women, and one of the few rewarding elements of 'Radioactive' is seeing Pike switch from a steely determination to prove herself to her male peers to a scared woman who feels like the lives of many are directly in her hands thanks to her work.
It is important to mention that 'Radioactive', while marketed as a biopic, is also an adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name about Curie's life. Given her experience as both a graphic novelist and director of graphic novel film adaptations, Marjane Satrapi ('Persepolis', 'The Voices') feels like the perfect choice to bring 'Radioactive' to life. I don't want to place the blame entirely on screenwriter Jack Thorne ('Enola Holmes') - more on his script later - but the magic and perfect balance of drama and humour that Satrapi usually brings to her projects is completely lost here. To the film's credit, some of its best moments are when it dips into low fantasy as Curie's experiments come to life, playing with colours against the dull, BBC historical drama-looking production design and costuming. Unfortunately, the overall aesthetic of the film simply does not lift enough from the colourful graphic novel to really do it justice, and these moments feel less like scenes that explore who Curie was a person and more like afterthoughts that were added in post-production.
On that note, some of 'Radioactive's' editing choices give off the impression that Satrapi needed to fill in blanks left by the script, overlaying montages of newspaper headlines about Curie's professional and personal lives to explain to the audience what the rest of the film isn't. Despite this colouring in, the film has drawn controversy for a number of historical inaccuracies, namely regarding Curie's acceptance of a Nobel Prize won with her husband. 'Radioactive' is not the first film to have its true events twisted for the sake of manufacturing cinematic melodrama - and it most certainly will not be the last - but when these changes come solely so Curie can deliver a quote-unquote girl power speech, the entire affair feels far more contrived as a result. Another curious decision is the inclusion of different and more recent historical events that Curie's scientific discoveries led to, such as the Chernobyl disaster. All of them, particularly the Hiroshima bombing scene, leave an extremely poor taste in the audience's mouth.
'Radioactive' works best when its pace matches Marie's livewire energy, but this is curbed at every single opportunity by its script
'Radioactive' works best when its pace matches Marie's livewire energy, but this is curbed at every single opportunity by its script and the refusal to shave 15 minutes off the runtime. There's an unspoken resignation to the idea that audiences just won't care enough to give the film their attention, and this is evident in the apparent need for characters to declare their emotions and, by extension, the film's main ideas instead of exploring them like real humans do. Adding to the film's creepy artificiality is the sound design, featuring a score that feels ripped straight from educational videos a child might watch while on a school museum trip, and dialogue dubbing with voices that don't even appear to belong to the actors on-screen (in once scene, this isn't helped by the camera's refusal to show the actor's faces for more than a second).
'Radioactive' doesn't know what it wants to be - a biopic, a period drama, or a feminist meditation on the role of women in male-dominated fields - and while it is possible for a film to be all three, sadly this fragile script cannot juggle all of these successfully. What audiences are left with is yet another half-assed biopic that will be buried deep in Amazon Prime's streaming library, and rightfully so. The memory of one of the greatest women in science - and Rosamund Pike, for that matter - deserve far better than that.