How do you solve a film problem like Marie Curie? This woman whose notable talents have shaped the modern world in remarkable ways. A woman whose pioneering work led her to two Nobel prizes in two separate research fields. An individual whose accomplishments revolutionised civilisation as we know it. Her discoveries provided breakthroughs which both benefited humanity as well as caused tragic consequences. This human changed the world in a way that this measly film writer cannot fully quantify in simple terms. How could cinema provide this woman with the reverence that she deserves? Possibly not like this.
It is difficult not to feel that this biopic was made purely due to where the pendulum of the zeitgeist is swinging at the current time, and is less to do with any deep artistic endeavour. It’s a film that feels like a job more than anything. It really shouldn’t. As expected, the film’s marketing is quick to highlight the prestige of its filmmakers. It notes that the producers had a hand in Atonement and The Darkest Hour. Both the film’s director, Marjane Satrapi, and its star, Rosamund Pike, are Academy Award Nominees who have produced effective work elsewhere. However, there’s a nagging feeling that, while everyone on a film sets out to make the best feature they can, Radioactive is simply made by committee.
Both the considerable talents of Radioactive’s lead and director are hampered by a screenplay that does little to inspire or provide any real engaging conflict. Instead, the screenplay is loaded with heavy-handed dialogue and weak pandering to present-day feminism. Scenes that would highlight Curie’s fierce intellect or determinism are framed in superficial and flat scenes that never ring true and feel more like a box-ticking exercise rather than organic drama.
There’s a key skill stage one vibe to nearly every plot point. If Curie had fights with the male-dominated field of science, then I’m sure there would be more fire shown elsewhere. Her hard work in discovering new elements were also possibly harder fought than the swiftly paced montages we see here. But the film does little to illustrate Curie’s passion, nor the true sense of what it may have been like for a woman researching in the field she was in. Simply having Curie being seen “working” doesn’t say enough.
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Much of film stumbles and falls heavily into the type of contrivances that would grate on even lesser-known biopic subjects. At one-point Curie is described by a character as “The best woman I have ever met”. It’s a cringeworthy moment which is so clumsily stated that this writer had to pause the screener, to stifle unsolicited titters. Said titters swiftly turn to annoyance for the simple reason that we’ve seen the people in this do better.
It’s not like Pike isn’t trying. She brings a certain amount of sincerity to a very two-dimensional role. Pike and the rest of the cast may not have much to get their teeth into, but no one gives the kind of drab performances a film like this could have easily given. The problem seems to stem from a screenplay that liberally appropriates from the big book of biopic platitudes. The tellingly short running time tries to hide plot which obediently trudges from A to B with little to no dramatic spark.
Curie’s battle with the male establishment? Little more than a brief plot-informing chat with some grumpy old men. Curie’s material issues? I’ve had worse arguments with my wife over the washing up. The lacklustre narrative does, however, highlight just how spirited Pike can be as a performer. While the storytelling is pedestrian, there is a feeling that Satrapi enjoyed working with Pike. If only they can find stronger material.
In the DVD extras amongst the two-minute fluff, VT’s and deleted scenes lies a small gem of a bonus feature. A 25-minute discussion between Marjane Satrapi and Rosamund Pike in which they talk freely about various topics of the film. Satrapi mentions how at first she was intimidated by Pike. They talk fervently about Curie, her dedication, and how they try to tap into her world view and the idea of intelligence being sexy. This a small yet insightful talk that allows two creative women to talk passionately about their project. Something that feels remarkable not only because it features on the DVD version of the film, but because it’s difficult to see where that passion disappeared into something as toothless as the finished product.
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Madame Curie should be strong material. The market is out there for spikey narratives and difficult/complex women. Unfortunately, such matters are not found in Radioactive; a truncated telling of a subject that should be fascinating. The most frustrating thing is that the film is so straightforward and conventional that it makes writing about it difficult. Having no edge makes the whole thing tricky to get a hold of. But not in the way one would like to see from Marjane Satrapi or Rosamund Pike. We know they can tackle the good stuff. It is just not here.
Radioactive is out now on Digital, and on DVD on 27th July from Studiocanal.