On paper the story of Marie Curie, a pioneering woman of science, seems like prime awards bait: with a big central role for Rosamund Pike, playing an eccentric proto-feminist. Sadly, Radioactive is as lifeless and inert as a rock, badly let down by a dismal script, and carrying all the half-life of an unfinished fish dinner.
Science: it’s a crazy game for crazy people, and – as the old saying goes – if you can’t stand the heat of a small vial of radium strapped to your wrist, perhaps you’d better get out of the home laboratory. Radioactive tells the story of Marie Curie – born Skłodowska – and her life united with that of Pierre Curie (Sam Riley): they meet and fall in love, united by their shared passion for science. The lifestyle, the measurements, the hand-crushed pitchblende: they simply can’t get enough of it, and the ‘S’ word is thrown down with tedious regularity.
Marie is, lest we forget, a woman of science. She uses the word ‘cite’ instead of ‘quote’, and she does all those classic science things like measuring her children and comparing the results. To bypass a more rudimentary biographical approach, the story also questions the overall ethics of scientific breakthroughs. Can something as destructive as radioactive energy ever be celebrated without guilt? Do the positives ever outweigh the negatives? Numerous flashforwards, which weave and overlap with the main narrative, take us to the New Mexico testing site of the Manhattan Project, an early prototype of chemotherapy, Hiroshima and Chernobyl.
Based on a graphic novel by Lauren Redniss, it comes across as cartoonish in the extreme. The use of juxtaposition and collage in the source material does not translate well: these diversions come across like careless afterthoughts, never given much time or depth. Having been pipped to the post somewhat by last year’s exhilarating and much-praised HBO series Chernobyl, Radioactive could only look weak by comparison to that tour-de-force of filmed entertainment.
However, there is a cynicism to the way the film tries to cram as many contemporary hot-button issues as it can into the running time. Not virtue signalling, so much as checklist screenwriting, turning every aspect of Skłodowska Curie’s life into a commentary on present concerns over racism, immigration and sex-positivity. At all times, there is a sense that the production has not come to terms with the enormity of what it wants to discuss. It’s an unfortunate misfire, best to be covered in tonnes of boron and shielded behind a guarded perimeter: no one should revisit this film in a hurry.