Marie Curie (Rosamund Pike) in 1934 was close to death and collapsed in her offices while at her teaching post in Paris, then was rushed to hospital, a place she had a pathological fear of, for treatment. She was suffering because of her work, which had brought her enormous acclaim but also terrible personal tragedy, and to see why we had to travel back to the French capital in 1893, where she was not Madame Curie yet and literally bumped into Monsieur Curie (Sam Riley) in the street. They would get to know one another better later, but Marie, then Maria from Poland, was more concerned with her frustrations at not being able to get funding for her experiments...
The story of the Curies had been told on screen before, most famously in the 1943 Hollywood biopic simply titled Madame Curie and starring Greer Garson; it has to be said neither Garson nor Pike look much like the woman they played, though they did resemble one another. But this retelling from director Marjane Satrapi was different as it was drawn from a graphic novel, as her biggest hit Persepolis had been, the book in question also called Radioactive from historical comic book artist Lauren Redniss, so it was easy to see what had attracted the filmmaker to translating the story from the page to the screen. However, Redniss' ultra-stylised approach might have better suited animation.
That was not to be, so the movie was akin to one of those tasteful Sunday night television dramas with asides to the effects radioactivity had had on the world ever since the Curies had discovered it, including the accidental revelation that it could actually kill. There's a cliché in the cinema where if a character coughs out of the blue, it means they won't make it to the end of the story alive, nope, they'll be dead of some terrible disease or other, and as the ultimate fate of the Curies was so infamous, one problem this had was that there was not much to surprise in its presentation given they were as well-known for their personal tragedies in the name of science as for the science.
Another issue was that while it was true Marie was a victim of scandal once Pierre was out of the picture, she was not the bloody-minded weirdo that Pike portrayed her as (Jack Thorne's screenplay was as much to blame here, maybe more so). However, it seems nobody wants to go and watch a biopic about someone who makes a point of being calm and measured (unless that person is Mr Rogers, and those traits are the whole point of the movie), so every so often this would throw up someone for Marie to clash with, usually the scientific establishment but also her relations and even her beloved Pierre, which came across as something of a misrepresentation. She was a strong-willed woman, but that will was channelled into her genius for science rather than being as hard to get on with as possible.
Satrapi purposefully sought out Pike for the role, therefore this was the representation she was aiming for, but it was somewhat hackneyed to make the female biopic one of a prickly rebel, though the conflict stood in for drama - melodrama, to an extent. To place her subject in historical context, Radioactive oddly blamed Marie Curie for the splitting of the atom, and as we will have no idea what she thought of the development of atomic bombs it was disingenuous to pin that on her. That said, as per Redniss' original, we were supposed to be weighing up two of the most powerful forces on Earth that happened to be invisible: the radiation of the title and love, both of which could be encapsulated by the Curies. Not a bad idea at all, but the film fumbled it when it was so keen to pull in as much of Marie's life as possible, leaving the results lacking the focus that was naggingly just out of reach. Every so often it would spring to life and you had a glimpse of what could have been, but it remained patchwork in effect overall. Music by Evgueni Galperine and Sacha Galperine.
[Studiocanal's DVD has featurettes and a lively interview between Satrapi and Pike as extras.]