'Radioactive' radiates cliches in trite, disappointing Marie Curie biopic
"Radioactive" -- ★ ★
In Marjane Satrapi's bland and befuddling biopic "Radioactive," brilliant scientist Marie Curie and her brilliant scientist husband Pierre Curie stand before their brilliant peers in 1898 France to announce a brilliant discovery: the elements radium and polonium.
"I call this radioactivity!" Marie says. "We are here to tell you that you have fundamentally misunderstood the atom!"
Does this announcement inspire gasps of excitement? Skeptical murmurs? Scowls from the men in the room because a mere woman dared to call them on the scientific carpet?
Instead, the scientists sit like zombies in their seats, until tentative applause quickly swells to a thunderous ovation. The Curies are a big hit! (Cue the obligatory montage of celebratory newspaper headlines.)
Laughable clichés like these radiate from "Radioactive," a trite and conventional biopic that turns a historic, female revolutionary figure into a passive, torch-carrying, co-dependent basket case.
The movie, written by Jack Thorne based on Lauren Redniss' graphic novel, opens in 1934 when an aged Marie (Rosamund Pike, struggling to connect with her character) collapses, is taken to a hospital and begins to suffer flashbacks.
We see how she meets cute with Pierre (Sam Riley, supplying a laboriously breathy delivery to a milquetoast personality) in 1895, and how their compatible intellects evolve into romantic radiance.
"I will never be the woman or the wife you want me to be!" Marie warns Pierre. Because we never find out what he wants her to be, we don't know how accurate that is.
"Radioactive" fleetly covers the high points in Marie's life. How she became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize (with Pierre insisting she be credited against the inclinations of an all-male committee), and the only woman to receive the Nobel Prize twice -- in different fields.
On the personal side, Marie and Pierre enjoy a lot of PG-13-rated bedroom grappling as well as a chaste skinning-dipping scene before producing daughters Eva and Irene (played by Indica Watson as an infant, later by Anya Taylor-Joy as an adult), who would later claim a Nobel Prize.
Pierre dies in a tragic, literal drive-by killing, struck by a horse carriage that doesn't stop at the scene of the accident, and the loss haunts Marie through the rest of her flashbacks, even during her scandalous affair with a married man who worked with her late husband.
As Marie continues to work on finding uses for radiation, her flashbacks periodically launch into abrupt and confusing future-flashes, such as in 1957 Cleveland where a doctor treats a boy's cancer with radium, and in 1945 when the Enola Gay B-29 Superfortress drops the first atomic bomb in war, and in 1986 when firefighters die in the radiation hell called Chernobyl.
These are daring narrative touches for Satrapi, an Iranian-French director who adapted her graphic novel "Persepolis" into an animated film.
But periodic flourishes of invention become undermined by the screenplay, a compilation of awkward exposition and groaner platitudes.
"The things that make us weak," Marie says, "are the things that make us strong!"
Marie Curie possessed many abilities, but reading fortune-cookie sayings wasn't one of them.
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Starring: Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Anya Taylor-Joy
Directed by: Marjane Satrapi
Other: An Amazon Studios release. On disc and streaming. Rated PG-13 for disturbing images, brief nudity, sexual situations. 109 minutes