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Non-Review Review: Radioactive

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

The life of Marie Curie is fascinating. Radioactive is not.

Curie is easily one of the great figures of the twentieth century, a scientist who changed the way in which mankind fundamentally understood the workings of the universe. That is no small accomplishment, and there is plenty of dramatic fodder to be found in her personal life; the manner in which she was marginalised by the scientific community because of her gender, her complicated relationship with Pierre Curie, even the tabloid scandal that defined so much of her later life. There are any number of interesting angles through which a biopic might approach Curie.

Unfortunately, Radioactive is greedy. Jack Thorne’s screenplay doesn’t just want to encompass the totality of Curie itself, the script hopes to offer something close to a cinematic biography of radiation itself. There is no doubt that Radioactive is ambitious, with director Marjane Satrapi even trying to break up scenes of exposition with helpful cinematic illustrations of the concepts under discussion. However, there is simply too much to cover. Radioactive struggles to maintain a consistent throughline, often feeling like a bullet point summary of Curie’s Wikipedia page rather than a compelling narrative of itself.

Radioactive could use some refining.

To be fair, a lot of the problems with Radioactive come baked into the biographical genre as a whole. After all, human lives are not actually stories. They do not have clear arcs and discernible supporting characters. Big developments are not always foreshadowed. There is often no thematic coherence between the random events that comprise a life. More than that, individual events within that life are often so complex that to unpack them would require more than two hours of themselves.

This is perhaps why films about historical figures have tended to move away from the template of depicting an entire life within an hour or four, with films like Gandhi or Patton becoming a lot less common. Most modern biographies tend to be built around particular events within the lives of their subjects, such as Frost/Nixon, Elvis and Nixon or even Rush. This tighter focus allows the film to make broader comments on a historical figure’s character within the confines of a tightly-focused narrative.

Radioactive is just too sprawling for its own good. This is perhaps most obvious in the way that it approaches the supporting cast. The film occasionally feels like a loose triptych organised around the three primary supporting characters in Curie’s life; her husband Pierre, her later lover Paul Langevin and her daughter Ève. It might be possible for Radioactive to turn this into a workable structure if it actually drilled down and focused on these dynamics. Instead, it seems to just amble from one to the next, to the point that Anya Taylor-Joy shows up as what amounts to the secondary lead with twenty minutes left in the runtime.

As a result, Radioactive is never entirely sure what it wants to say about Marie Curie, whether as a scientist or as an individual. There’s no sense of a clear or cohesive statement about her, no sense of what made her unique, what drove her beyond the most generic of sentiments. Radioactive is built around trite and cliché characterisation, crudely repurposed as motivation. “I have spent my life surrounded by death and radiation,” Marie states. Ève responds, “Yes, and it has brought you—“ Marie cuts her off, “Nothing but pain and sadness.” Yes, death brought her pain and sadness. This is not an insight. This is a cliché.

This lack of focus is compounded by the decision to try to expand Radioactive into a study of the legacy of Marie Curie’s discoveries. There’s something interesting in this, with the film trying to suggest a moral judgment of the legacy of Curie’s work and the way in which it fundamentally shaped mankind’s future. Unfortunately, there is simply not enough room to develop this idea in any interesting direction. Instead, Radioactive becomes a whistle-stop tour of the familiar atomic history of the twentieth century making all the mandated stops; radiotherapy, the bombing of Hiroshima, the disaster at Chernobyl.

The problem isn’t that this is a bad idea. The problem is that there is simply no room for this and everything else that the film attempts to accomplish. As a result, a potentially interesting idea is reduced down to a crude set of disjointed sketches populated by familiar iconography that feel like the cliff notes of a much more successful film. It seems highly unlikely that any audience member attending Radioactive hasn’t already been confronted by these sorts of images and these sorts of ideas, explored in greater depth and with more success. (Chernobyl was a breakout hit less than a year ago.)

This gets at the real problem with Radioactive, which is that in order to cover everything that it needs to, in order to provide a representative cross-section of its subject’s life, it has to reduce everything to exposition. To be fair, Rosamund Pike tries to find an emotional hook into a character who comes across as a stock antisocial scientist, even if the film never gives her room to breathe and the script denies her a clear and cohesive arc. Marjane Satrapi tries to inject a little energy into a film largely built around talking heads and exposition, but this mostly consists of bathing the film in shades of green.

Radioactive is a disappointment, a film that doesn’t serve its talent or its subject.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 1

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