Based on Lauren Redniss’s graphic novel, “Radioactive” reinforces what we think we know about Curie: She was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize, for discovering radium and polonium and, a few years later, for her work researching radioactivity. For those whose Curie expertise stops there, this comprehensive portrait will fill in a number of tantalizing blanks, including her passionate love affair with husband and collaborator Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), an extramarital liaison that made her a pariah in Paris, and the Polish identity that gave her moral ostracizing a nasty xenophobic edge.
Born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, Curie would reinvent herself in Paris, which in the late 19th century was the center of a rapidly changing world. One of Marie and Pierre’s first dates is at an emerging form of mass entertainment called “the movies.” Although Marie would likely never call herself an activist, her brisk insistence on being taken seriously as a scientist — in the face of a patronizing and dismissive male academic establishment — is of a piece with a coming feminist revolution.
Directed by Marjane Satrapi, whose filmed graphic novel “Persepolis” announced her as a major talent, “Radioactive” tries to bring that form’s stylized visual grammar and blunt narrative structure to a live-action format, with limited success. This is a beautiful-looking film, shot with storybook wonderment by Anthony Dod Mantle, who often frames his shots with romantic vignetting and an ethereal nimbus of soft light. The vial of glowing green radium that Marie carries like a talisman is entrancing and terrifying; we know what’s to come when she and Pierre come down with coughs they can’t quite shake.
As a conventional biography enlivened by moments of dreamy magical realism, “Radioactive” makes for a compelling if dutifully rote wiki-film: Wearing a frizzled wig and a perpetual scowl, Pike once again dispels any natural vanity to bear down on a character who might be admirable, even heroic, but is rarely likable. But the movie loses its way when Satrapi digresses into flights of time travel, set pieces designed to illustrate how the Curies’ discoveries were used for both healing and destruction. (The core irony of Curie’s character in “Radioactive” is that she couldn’t stand to witness death and suffering, despite her discoveries unleashing plenty of both.)
Visits to a Cleveland cancer ward, the Enola Gay, Chernobyl and an atomic test site in the American Southwest look at once overproduced and crammed in; a sequence set in World War I, wherein Marie and her daughter Irène (Anya Taylor-Joy) deliver X-ray machines to the front, lifts up a little-known chapter of Curie’s career, but still feels perfunctory and too-obvious.
The blunt, episodic nature of “Radioactive” mirrors the pane-by-pane flow of a typical graphic novel. Despite Satrapi’s best efforts to smooth out the story and imbue it with depth and theatrical interest, the story can’t overcome some of its most unwieldy structural flaws. There’s no doubt that “Radioactive” tells an engrossing and inspiring story; it just might be that its heroine was always too hot to handle.
PG-13. Available on Amazon Prime. Contains mature thematic elements, disturbing images, brief nudity and a scene of sensuality. 109 minutes.