Radioactive is a largely competent biopic of the scientist Marie Curie. The film does a serviceable job of fleshing out the woman who is often nodded toward in history books, though the lead performance pulls much of that weight.
Rosamund Pike stars as the feisty and brilliant Marie. Radioactive spans most of her adult life, after immigrating to Paris from Poland, though it briefly begins with her death. From there, we flash to her meeting her husband, Pierre (Sam Riley) for the first time. Though both are prominent chemists who run in the same academic and social circles, they have a typical meet cute by literally running into one another in the busy streets.
We then get taken through Marie’s romance with Pierre, their children, and his untimely death (you don’t need a spoiler-alert for a bit of 114 year old news, do you?), but the focus is mainly on Marie’s struggles through the scientific world in her time as a woman and as a scientist without a trust fund. Whether it was prejudice against strong-willed women or universities being unwilling to fund her unproven ideas, Marie’s battle for respect and lab space was an uphill battle.
Admittedly, Marie’s life and scientific achievements are easy to present in a captivating manner on screen. Not only was she the first woman to win the Nobel Prize (with Pierre), she went on to win it a second time too. And if that were not enough to make her Hollywood ready, she was involved in an affair and following tabloid scandal. Add in a sprinkle of Pierre’s interest in spiritualism and we have a recipe for an intriguing film.
Radioactive shows a valiant effort to explain Marie’s scientific pursuits in layman’s terms. At one dinner with friends, she frames radioactivity and her theories of radioactive elements in terms of grapes and their hypothetical powers to emit light and break into other elements. While clearly pandering, this scene is riveting because it is not done with frustration to dumb down the material, though it does, but rather we see Marie’s passion and excitement for her studies for the first time. She wants everyone to understand, and she wants them to be just as invested in unlocking the secrets of the atom as she is. Pike sells her transformation as Marie here, and maintains that immersion throughout the film.
In a less graceful example of showing an uninformed audience complicated science, Radioactive occasionally removes the audience from Marie’s world into a series of insights into how her work affected the world. We see a child’s cancer getting treated with radiation, Chernobyl, and Hiroshima. While we all may be more aware of the far-reaching implications of radiation in the world, it makes sense to remind us that these advances are all thanks to one woman. What does not make sense is to plop these dioramas throughout the film, interrupting the emotional inertia already being created. Not to say that they are not well crafted, but they are jarring.
Radioactive is buoyed by Pike’s engaging performance and, frankly, the life of Marie Curie herself.