Review by C.J. Bunce
The price of knowledge is often great and grim. If you like your historical biopics about scientific discoveries of the inspiring and motivational variety, Amazon Studios and Studiocanal’s latest film Radioactive, a barely recognizable adaptation of the Lauren Redniss graphic novel, Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, may not be for you. Yet exceptional performances by Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, Jack Reacher, Die Another Day) as Maria Skłodowska aka Madame Marie Curie and Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma, Split, The New Mutants) as her daughter Iréne, and a dearth of new films this summer, will likely make this 2018 production worth your time. It arrived in the U.S. for the first time this week streaming on Amazon Prime.
Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis, The Voices) directed this film, a look at various periods in Madame Curie’s life as she partners with husband Pierre, played by Sam Riley (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Maleficent) and their discovery of new elements polonium and uranium at the turn of the 20th century. Assembled primarily in chronological fashion, Radioactive flashes into the future beyond Curie’s death to illustrates the negative impacts of her discoveries on the world (including re-creations of the first atomic bomb test in New Mexico, the Enola Gay dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and the Chernobyl disaster), and back to her youth in Poland to explain Madame Curie’s world view, her drive, and her relationships with others.
Pike delivers a performance that conjures Katherine Hepburn in some of her more powerful roles. Her Curie is self-absorbed, blunt, and determined in the face of first discrimination for her sex and later discrimination for her Polish heritage. Riley’s Pierre balances out the duo for a brief romantic segment to the film, but then the radiation–well-known in its effects today by the viewing audience, lurks like its own phantom character throughout the picture. It’s there as the Curies work and cough and convulse, as Marie becomes pregnant and gives birth to two daughters, and as she and her husband slowly begin to die from their exposure. The real spark doesn’t arrive until late in the film in the form of Marie’s grown daughter Iréne, giving Pike and Taylor-Joy some welcome chemistry as mirror images of each other, and providing a bit of needed electricity and exuberance to the film. Keep an eye out for familiar British actors Katherine Parkinson (Humans, Sherlock) and Sian Brooke (Sherlock, Good Omens).
Despite its haphazard plotting, Radioactive has impressive production design, with great set pieces and costumes. Cinematography by Oscar winner Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) captures images seemingly plucked from time, using camera angles, muted colors, and shadows and light you’d find in contemporary photographs. And Evgueni and Sacha Galperine′s John Cage-inspired musical score is surprisingly interesting, full of contrasts of the modern that reflect the futurism and technology from an early 19th century vantage with the more period, historical, programmatic sounds.
The tempo and overall presentation is similar to many biographical dramas of the past few years, such as First Man, The Current War, Marshall, and 42, but it falls a bit short of more enticing and artful films such as Colette, Bohemian Rhapsody, or A Beautiful Mind. We’re definitely seeing a split in films that make it to theatrical release and those that head directly to streaming platforms. The film was initially scheduled for theatrical release in April, which was delayed because of the pandemic. But it feels more like a film for television. If you weren’t a fan of the frenetic artwork in the graphic novel, you may agree the film is an improvement on the source material.
Watch Rosamund Pike in Radioactive, streaming now exclusively here on Amazon.