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Radioactive review: Marie Curie biopic fizzes but doesn't spark

Radioactive on Amazon Prime asks big questions about the pioneering chemist's work, but it's ultimately more interested in her love life.

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Studio Canal

Halfway through Radioactive, streaming on Amazon Prime now, something strange happens. What appears to be a by-the-numbers biopic splits in two, its narrative thrown off course by a twist of fate. The story shatters. The ending that seemed inevitable can't happen anymore. For a moment it looks as though the film might be about to escape its formula and become something entirely new. 

Unfortunately, it doesn't quite make it. Marjane Satrapi's biography of Marie Curie is a portrait of a woman who broke through scientific and social boundaries, but it never breaks free of its genre's restrictions.

Marie Curie discovered polonium and radium. She transformed our understanding of science and the world around us. She was the first woman to win a Nobel prize -- twice, in fact, and in two different disciplines. Her study of radiation led to medical breakthroughs and ushered in the atomic age. But in Radioactive, all of this takes a back seat to the fact that one day she met a nice man and married him.

Scripted by Jack Thorne and based on Lauren Redniss' award-winning graphic novel, Radioactive charts a predictable route through Curie's life and work. It ticks all the inspirational biographical boxes in the process: lingering shots of glowing beakers and bunsen burners, straight-laced sexist baddies to vanquish and a lot of ominous coughing into handkerchieves. But there's something bigger and darker bubbling just under the surface.

Read more: 15 best movies to watch on Amazon Prime Video  

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Rosamund Pike and Sam Riley as Marie and Pierre Curie.

Studio Canal

Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, Jack Reacher) is brittle and compelling as the prickly but brilliant scientist. Born Maria Skłodowska, Marie is a Polish immigrant determined to further her scientific research in Paris. She's up against nationalist sentiments and a male-dominated establishment -- at one point she wonders aloud whether she's being mistreated because of her nationality or her gender. When she's alienated from academia, help comes in the form of future husband Pierre Curie (Sam Riley, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil), who offers her lab space and becomes her scientific collaborator.

Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that the film begins and ends with the Curies' relationship. The graphic novel is called Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout. And although the movie drops Pierre's name from the title, it still lavishes him with frankly undeserved attention. Riley's performance is likable enough, but Pierre's character feels underwritten.

It's not as though there isn't plenty of potential for conflict and spark between the Curies. Marie is reluctant to share credit with her husband in a world that wants to sweep her aside. Pierre is an unconventional scientist by today's standards, fascinated by spiritualism and fond of running naked through fields. But despite their quirks, it's hard to tell what they see in each other. For all the time they spend together in laboratories, there's surprisingly little chemistry.

Pike's most arresting scenes don't involve her husband at all. She's at her best when butting heads with her headstrong daughter, played by a scene-stealing Anya Taylor-Joy (star of The Witch, Split and Emma). Irène Curie has inherited her mother's sharp tongue, passion for science, and sheer, stubborn determination. While Pierre offers much-needed support to Marie, it's Irène who pushes her to overcome her biggest fears.

It wouldn't be fair to say there's nothing interesting about Marie Curie's personal life. It was so scandalous, in fact, that it overshadowed her work. But that drama plays out all too predictably in Radioactive, from the outraged headlines to Curie's defiant appearance before a roomful of cheering women. 

When does it get interesting? The clue's in the name. 

Radioactive is a horror movie disguised as a biopic. The deadly side effects of working with radiation don't become apparent until it's too late. As Curie's accomplishments grow, we see glimpses of the future her research helped to build: Medical breakthroughs come hand in hand with the 20th-century nightmares of Hiroshima and Chernobyl. A sequence set in the nuclear test site at Doom Town, Nevada, vividly contrasts kitschy 1950s optimism with the sheer destructive force of the bomb. 

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Please, Madame, put on some gloves!

Studio Canal

The movie draws a parallel between Curie and Alfred Nobel, the Swedish chemist and "merchant of death" who patented gunpowder. Despite the human cost of his creation, he's now best known for founding the awards that celebrate scientific progress. It's no coincidence the Curies' first Nobel prize is juxtaposed with a scene of the Enola Gay dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Curie herself doesn't escape the consequences of her work. Her discoveries bring her the recognition she craves, but her private life erupts in personal tragedy and scandal. And she's ultimately forced to acknowledge that the new elements she discovered are making people sick. At her lowest point, she's seen not as one of France's foremost scientists. Instead she's "the dirty Pole who invented a poison that the world thought marvelous." When she succumbs to aplastic anemia after years of exposure to radioactive material, she's forced to confront the cost of her life's work.

Director Satrapi is perhaps best known as the creator of Persepolis, an autobiographical series of comics and an animated movie about her upbringing in Iran. But despite Radioactive's source material and Satrapi's background in visual art, it's an aesthetically disappointing experience. There are some striking images -- a test dummy melting in a nuclear blast, a luminous vial in Curie's dark bedroom, the desolate dreamscape she explores in her final scenes -- but they're scattered through a film that handles its extraordinary subject matter all too cautiously.

Radioactive seems engineered to sit alongside uplifting historical stories like The King's Speech and The Aeronauts (also scripted by Thorne), but its dark undercurrents make it an uneasy fit in the genre. There's no denying Marie Curie's accomplishments or her place in history, but her legacy is more complicated than Radioactive's love story.