After Marjane Satrapi’s impressive debut feature – the much-lauded animated feature, Persepolis based on her own graphic novel – made such a significant worldwide impact, expectations placed upon her films have now become understandably high.

It is a shame, then, that the Oscar nominated director’s latest film, Radioactive, a bio-pic detailing the life and achievements of the scientist, Marie Curie – and also based on a graphic novel – is such a hard film to like.

Whilst the acting performance of Rosamund Pike is invariably consistent and believable, the rest of the cast, for the most part, often come across as wooden and one-dimensional as they labour to present the story of Curie’s life with any true conviction or emotion.

The dim and primarily colourless design palette, created by Michael Carlin for this film, coupled with the tendency of Satrapi to set most of her internal sets in murky light, or at night in poorly lit streets, combine to create a bleak backdrop which casts a pall over the significant scientific achievements Marie and her husband, Pierre (Sam Riley), made within their specialised fields.

Working with the benefit of historical hindsight, Satrapi’s point here seems to be to question the long-term benefits that came from the Curies’ discovery of radium and its ‘radioactive’ qualities, whilst simultaneously pushing a less than subtle feminist angle in its depiction of an assertive, intelligent woman striving for self-determination in a chauvinistic and misogynistic world.

The film’s frequent employment of the ‘flash forward’ technique is skewed to present the most negative examples of how extensions of her work led to extremely destructive outcomes in the years after Curie died. 

Re-enactments of the A-Bomb tests in the Nevada desert; street scenes in Hiroshima before the Bomb detonates; and the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown, all follow the first use of this technique which depicts an unresolved story of a young boy receiving what was then a novel radiation therapy treatment in an attempt to cure his advanced cancer. The collective imbalance in these future visions implies that Curie, somehow, suspected the likely catastrophic outcome of her compulsion to unlock the secrets of the atom, and that this was a contributing factor to her dominant state of unhappiness. This is seemingly reinforced when she is visited by visions of the future at the end of her life.

To add to the sense of discomfort this film arouses in its audience, much of the film depicts Curie and her husband in the throes of radiation sickness, and labouring beneath the ever-present spectre of death. This serves as a heavy-handed underscoring of the fact that her work came at great personal cost to her and her family.

In addition to tracking through the trials of her scientific work and achievements, the film also paints Curie’s personal life as problematic, focusing briefly upon an affair with a co-worker that she became engaged in after her husband’s death and which drags her reputation through the gutters of Paris.

Whilst the film sets out to present its protagonist as a ‘real’ person at all costs, flawed, and stripped of most of the romanticised embellishments to which the bio-pic genre can be prone to applying, it overstates this. This discourages the viewer’s willingness to feel any meaningful level of empathy for her.

Marie Curie’s story is an important one, and should have presented an enthralling film subject, but Radioactive is an overly bleak film, revising history arbitrarily and often reducing triumph to trial, and treating redemption as a belated and understated postscript.

Rating: 2 1/2 stars

Radioactive opens in cinemas around the city from November 5, 2020.