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Radioactive both employs and upends cinematic biography clichés.


  • Amazon Studios

For many years, I've half-jokingly lamented how contemporary film biopics often include photos or footage of the film's real-life subjects. The "showing the real people at the end" problem might be a peculiar bugaboo of mine—it feels like both an insult to the actors who work to create their own interpretation of a real-life person, and a desperate plea for respect because, after all, these are real people—but, more to the point, it's a cliché. And considering the way that the cinematic biopic is a genre often riddled with clichés, it's worth considering how many of them can and should be discarded.

Radioactive takes on the life of pioneering scientist Marie Curie (Rosamund Pike), covering the breadth of her professional and personal life with husband Pierre Curie (Sam Riley). And the extent to which it's a mixed bag is indicative of the ways director Marjane Satrapi and screenwriter Jack Thorne choose either to embrace or re-invent some of the most common tropes of the biopic world.

The "Masterpiece Theater" problem. Whether the subject is an athlete or a musician, a politician or a scientist, there's often an over-earnestness to these productions that's absolutely crippling to any sense of creativity. It's an approach that can manifest itself in a variety of ways—for example, as happens here, when every character speaks with a British accent despite the fact that the story is set almost entirely in Paris. Somehow this is supposed to make the production seem more respectable, even if the main character was born and raised in Poland, and even if you end up with preposterous stuff like a Parisian day laborer having an East London accent—because even if everyone has a British accent, class distinctions must be preserved. On the other hand, credit to Satrapi for bypassing a serene orchestral score in favor of the funky electronic sounds provided by composers Evgueni and Sasha Galperine.

The "this, then this, then this" problem. Biographies are often hampered by a sense of obligation to chronology, beginning at whatever point is deemed most relevant then dutifully ticking off a bunch of boxes from the subject's "Greatest Life Hits." Radioactive starts with a structure that was mocked in Walk Hard—with Marie near death in 1934, and reflecting back on her life—as we see Marie's first meeting with Pierre in 1893, their subsequent professional collaboration, their key discoveries, etc. But Satrapi and Thorne then take an audacious step by leaving the framework of Marie's lifespan for visits to later historical moments impacted by her scientific breakthroughs: a young boy receiving radiation treatments for cancer in 1957; the Enola Gay dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima; the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Satrapi isn't entirely successful at integrating those scenes—at times they feel entirely separate, at times like Marie is having visions of what is to come—but the visual imagination at least allows Radioactive to consider the notion of what might ripple outward from the narrow range of years encompassed by the "born" and "died" in a famous person's biography.

The "spotlight performance" problem. The statistics are pretty clear that playing a real person is an easy path to a performance getting praised and showered with awards. The movies around those performances are often built with that concept in mind, giving the central character plenty of dramatic material to work with in the form of big emotional breakdowns, showy speeches and the like. Pike's work as Marie is solid, capturing the prickly personality exacerbated by her struggles to be taken seriously as a woman in a man's field, yet there's something missing from the characterization beyond single-minded professional determination, especially when we move into her later years and how she starts to think about her legacy. Radioactive's version of Marie Curie feels more like an object of veneration than a person—especially when we get a scene featuring the dreaded "slow clap that turns into a standing ovation."

The "showing the real person at the end" problem. Yeah, Radioactive does that too, although it is admittedly kinda cool seeing her in a photo of colleagues including Albert Einstein. In a way, that seems like the perfect way to conclude Radioactive, a movie that wants to do interesting things with some genre clichés, while still benefiting from the cachet that those clichés bring.