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Film Review: “Radioactive” Fails to Engender Empathy for Its Central Figure or Excitement for Her Life-Altering Work

Written by: Hannah Tran | July 23rd, 2020

Film poster: “Radioactive”

Radioactive (Marjane Satrapi, 2019) 1½ out of 4 stars.

Radioactive is exactly the type of movie you’re hoping it won’t be. Telling the life story of renowned Polish-born physicist and chemist, Marie Curie, French-Iranian director Marjane Satrapi (Chicken with Plums) doesn’t just focus on the well-known tragedies and successes regarding Curie’s discoveries of radium and plutonium. She also surveys her life in France, her rocky romantic relationships, her role as a mother and her fight to be respected in a field not yet ready for a woman to enter it. But while each of these components may seem essential to understanding the near-mythic figure of Curie, the bulk of this information only makes for a cramped and overly-familiar biopic that feels more akin to reading a Wikipedia-page entry than watching a film.

While the story at the heart of Radioactive is perfectly engaging and informative, it often feels overly focused on that latter quality, frequently sacrificing emotional tension in order to hurtle past as many major moments in her life as possible. Even worse is the way that it presents this information, the writing often underestimating its audience and falling victim to over-explaining its emotional intentions and narrative ideas. Its hurried and disjointed rhythm, moreover, never allows the viewer to fully indulge in any of these numerous moments of her life. Thus, the impact of her discoveries falls flat and her personal relationships often flatter. The meager exception lies in her relationship with her husband and research partner, Pierre.

Rosamund Pike in RADIOACTIVE ©Amazon Studios

For the most part, Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) and Sam Riley (Control), as Marie and Pierre, each execute perfectly adequate performances characteristic of the respective genre. However, there are a number of sweet and painful moments they share which seem to rise above the rest of the film’s emotional vacuousness. But then again, the writing does little to garner the audience’s sympathy for Marie beyond the fact that she clearly didn’t deserve the contempt or adversity in her personal and professional life that she received. While it attempts to demystify her on a personal level, she always feels at arm’s-length. She is cold, and her decisions and feelings are difficult to understand, but the film’s rushed pace doesn’t leave enough breathing room or character investment to be very interested in understanding them.

Radioactive is an Oscar-bait film in a post-Oscar-bait world. And the movie itself seems aware of this. It toys with dreamlike visuals and magical dream-sequences, but its attempts to tread into stranger territory never feel quite daring enough. Thus, it turns out that its greatest issue lies not in its absence of originality, tension, or emotion, but in its absence of a focused vision.

Rosamund Pike and Sam Riley in RADIOACTIVE ©Amazon Studios
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Hannah Tran is a film critic and filmmaker from Las Vegas, Nevada. She is currently studying film and English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In addition to her studies, Hannah works as a film screener for the Las Vegas Film Festival and publishes an independent zine focused on highlighing Asian American filmmaking.

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