Just when the Marie Curie movie “Radioactive” seems like a disappointing, paint-by-numbers biopic complete with clichéd dialogue and milestone scenes that play out like a filmed version of a Wikipedia entry, there’s a whiplash-inducing, dreamlike sequence set long after Curie’s death, from locales ranging from the bombing of Hiroshima to an atomic bomb test in Nevada in 1961 to firefighters dying in Chernobyl in 1986. This is a movie with a deeply split personality, and despite some flashes of creativity from a talented director and cast, neither the straightforward biography nor the flights of creative fancy are particularly resonant.
The gifted director Marjane Satrapi (adapting a graphic novel by Lauren Redniss) begins the story in classic historical figure fashion — by starting at the end with Rosamund Pike’s Marie Curie collapsing while doing research in her homeland of Poland in 1934, shortly before her death. Cue the flashback to Paris in 1895, where the young and headstrong and generationally brilliant Marie Salomea Sklodowska is storming down the street when she literally bumps into one Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), and if there’s a more tired meet-cute than the collision on the street, you tell me what that might be.
Marie has recently been evicted from her university lab by a panel of harrumphing and naysaying male scientists, who are clearly threatened by a woman on the verge of turning their world upside down with new discoveries and groundbreaking theories. Pierre, a researcher of some renown in his own right, offers Marie lab space and a team of assistants, and despite Marie telling him she has no intention of sleeping with him or even considering something as foolish as romance, it’s not long before they’re married and they become one of the most celebrated couples in the world — especially after they discover two new elements: radium and polonium.
Director Satrapi employs “A Beautiful Mind” type graphics to walk us through the science, as the Curies embrace radioactivity in all its forms. (Ooh, but there’s a lot of ominous coughing.) Interspersed with the march through time, which includes a devastating tragedy and a scandalous affair, we get a trippy rendering of Loie Fuller’s “Fire Dance” at the Folies Bergere; the introduction of Marie’s grown daughter, Irene (Anya Taylor-Joy), who follows in her mother’s Nobel-winning footsteps, and the aforementioned flash-forward sequences in which we see everything from a boy in a Cleveland hospital in 1957 receiving radiation treatment for cancer to an artificial Main Street in Nevada, complete with mannequin “families,” melting to nothingness after an atomic bomb test.
Rosamund Pike does fine work as Curie, though she’s often tasked with making proclamations about how she’s going to prove everyone wrong, “just like Newton did!” Though well-filmed and well-acted, “Radioactive” careens from predictable to the borderline bizarre, and never finds solid footing in either world.