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Radioactive

Radioactive

Look at this, this thing I'm holding. How cool am I?

dir: Marjane Satrapi

2020

Radioactive, huh? You were waiting for a biopic of one of the most famous scientists of the last couple of centuries, like maybe to show kids in school, or, these days, tell kids to download themselves and watch in the privacy of their own bedrooms / juvenile delinquency cells.

You thought maybe Rosamund Pike, brilliant British actor, would make a decent go of the role (no pressure). After all, if she could play the real protagonist of Gone Girl, she could probably do all right with the Mother of Uranium Dragons, you thought.

But then you might not have realised that the way the script was going to be written, or the direction she’d be given, encouraged her to perform the character like every cliché of the mad scientist that I thought we gave up on when the Back to the Future films ended. I don’t actually have a good sense or picture in my head of what Madam Curie was actually like as a person, from either this movie (which I hope is either wrong or an exaggeration) or from the vast tranche of materials available about her life and her incredible achievements.

I just really wish that the flick hadn’t pursued the course of: brilliant female scientist probably somewhere on the spectrum meets male scientist who really “gets” her, then all her affectations and Tourette’s-like behavior fly out the window, because all she really needed was the love of a good man to settle her down. Sure, she’s brilliant at a time when society frowns at women being anything, including brilliant, but nevertheless she persisted and changed science / the world / had to be accepted despite her astonishing manner.

It would be just as annoying, and it is just as annoying, when they do the same with the genders reversed.

I also don’t know what the relationship between Marie and Pierre (here played by Sam Wiley) was like in real life, but I can console or comfort myself with the idea that much of what they do here together is pretty good, as in I eventually accepted that it was a believable (somehow) portrait of what these two brilliant people might have been like together. The most surprising part of the film is that after they choose to get married, in a flick which was mostly comprised of people pouring stuff into beakers or mortar and pestling rocks containing radioactive materials, and Marie usually squawking out her thoughts and what she imagines the other person is thinking, rather than waiting to hear them actually speak, was a quiet interlude in the country. Out of nowhere, in a film that thus far has been about Marie’s anger at not being taken seriously because of her gender, and dismissing everything anyone says or might say, in this bit out of nowhere, they ride bikes, swim in a lake, and lie on a blanket, naked, chatting amiably.

It's not a sex scene per se, but it will do. These are both young attractive people playing older than they are, so I guess they have to remind us they’re not just fusty old looking serious people from the olden days, they also like to laugh and fuck too.

Back to work, though, which is a far more serious business. And when you consider the work they do, goddamn, there are so many scenes that are meant to flat out make us wonder how naïve these brilliant people were. Even as they contributed massively to the fields of chemistry and physics, even as they figured out stuff about atoms and radioactivity (hence the title) that no-one had figured out before (or were actually figuring out at the same time as their peers were, as is usually the case rather than the totally out of nowhere lightbulb moment that most scientific advancement is depicted as in biopics), seeing them touching these materials that are horribly radioactive, and making them sick, and making the people around them sick is – a lot to take.

We only know with the benefit of hindsight just how ludicrous (and terrible) it was that people started selling Radium Cigarettes or Radium Toothpaste or Radium cough lollies, but to Pierre and Marie it just seems like a minor folly, even as they themselves start noticing odd health impacts upon themselves and the people in their employ / field.

The film chooses to do something pretty out there, considering it’s a biopic, in terms of looking at the ripples that fan out from any time anyone has advanced science by an order of magnitude – it ties in scenes from way in the future, from the 1940s, 1950s and 1980s, anchoring them to the person whose discoveries made them possible. At first I wondered, honestly, what the fuck was going on: a peaceful scene as a child throws a paper plane, on the streets of Hiroshima seconds before the Enola Gay passes overhead; people paying 50 cents a pop to watch a test atom bomb explosion at New Mexico while the actual people involved sit in a bunker; a worried father takes his boy to have his cancer treated with radiation; a fireman succumbs almost immediately to radiation poisoning at Chernobyl.

I’m not saying the film lays the blame for these advances or occurrences at her feet solely, but it’s not not blaming her either. The link is in the speech Pierre gives as he receives the Nobel that Marie earned, where he outlines the resonant irony that Nobel started the prize out of guilt for what his own invention wrought upon the world as a tool and as a weapon of war. A scientist who invents something that can be used to heal millions of people as well as kill many of them through a different use of the same underlying principles presumably, in this story’s rendering, has to take the credit for both.

It’s not really that convincing an argument to me, but I’m not sure that’s the case the film is making anyway. These elements are from the book this is based on, being the graphic novel Radioactive: Marie & Pierre: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss. It also uses the annoying framing device of a famous person at a crucial moment, in this case, Madam Curie collapsing close to death because of her aplastic anemia, then looking back on her life as it slowly ebbs away from her, and it ends where it obviously ends.

The question for us as viewers is whether it gives a good enough sense of who the person was, what they did that mattered, and why we needed to watch a film about it. The film does bother to go into the fact that Madam Curie was Polish, and that guided a lot of her feelings towards her adoptive but hostile second country. It shows how much of a struggle it was for the old guard of literal old male scientists to let her in the door, the poor diddums, but not the lengths they went to in order to keep it shut. It shows how the public and press turn on her for reasons that seem baffling these days, especially considering these are French people we’re talking about. And while it shows the convenience with which she is attacked for being Polish and Jewish (despite not being Jewish) when she is in disfavor, but celebrated and embraced as French whenever she wins some prestigious awards, they don’t really make enough of a point that she didn’t particularly consider herself French either.

Her daughters play a role in the film, not a huge role, but considering that Irene (the elder daughter eventually being played by Anja Taylor-Joy) would go on to make her own scientific discoveries, and build the first reactor in France (with the help of a lackey husband), it’s important that she’s there. She also (and I don’t know if this is true) forces her mother to redeem herself in the eyes of France by compelling her to face her fear of hospitals.

As this is a biopic, there has to be one primary event that informs and colours every single thing the person achieves thereafter, and for the young Marie it is the death of her mother because of tuberculosis. The aversion towards hospitals has to be triumphed over in order for her biggest achievement, which I had no idea about, being the creation of mobile x-ray machines used on the battlefields of World War I.

And it’s oh so neat and tidy that it becomes the way she redeems herself for the future destruction that she made possible. How the fuck was she supposed to know?

I loved neither the script nor the majority of the performances overall. I liked how it came together visually, as in many of the linkages to the themes of her life and her work in the way they’re realised on screen. It’s a conventional biopic that tells you some facts but leaves the central personage a bit of a blank slate. I have seen Rosamund Pike be great in stuff, but not here. This was probably sold to her as Oscarbait that would definitely get her the one she was owed for Gone Girl, where she was cruelly robbed, but in this era of the coronavirus flattening everything, this isn’t going to stand out enough to be memorable in six month’s time.

I’ve loved Marjane Satrapi’s work ever since reading and then watching Persepolis what feels like a million years ago now, so I always enjoy watching her evolve as an artist and as a director. I just… didn’t love Radioactive. It did not speak to me despite the richness of the person it is about and the subject matter at hand. I don’t pretend to know what the better way would have been to tell this story, let alone as an Amazon Original, but this doesn’t feel like it was it.

6 times they could have used Kraftwerk’s song Radioactivity, or even Stereolab’s cover out of 10

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“You threw a stone in the water. The ripples, you can't control. There are things to be scared of, but there's so much to celebrate."
- “I hope you're right. I hope you're right.” - Radioactive

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