Radioactive

Rosamund Pike attends the "Radioactive" UK Premiere at The Curzon Mayfair on March 8 in London. 

Radioactive: the discovery, the concept, the word defined culture in the 20th century, in the realms of science, medicine and war, and in our own existential dread and pop fantasies. The threat of nuclear warfare and nuclear meltdowns, the advances in treating cancer and the invention of the X-ray machine: It’s all become such a ubiquitous part of modern life that it’s important to remember the discovery itself came from a Polish woman living in France at the turn of the century, a wife and mother who battered the elements into submission seeking to understand how they worked.

Marie Curie was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win it twice and the only person to win it in two different fields. Her life and work is the subject of Oscar-nominated filmmaker Marjane Satrapi’s fifth feature, “Radioactive,” adapted by Jack Thorne (“Dirt Music,” “The Aeronauts”) from Lauren Redniss’ nontraditional biography, which she creatively illustrated, “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout.” Rosamund Pike stars as the pioneering scientist who discovered radium and polonium with her husband, Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), thereby changing the world forever, for better or for worse.

The complicated legacy marks Satrapi’s film, which wrestles mightily with what Curie left us: radiation treatment for cancer and X-ray machines, but also Hiroshima and Chernobyl. The film is fixated to the point of obsessed with the complex legacy, often leaping ahead to events that occurred decades after her death in 1934 to underline that yes, radium is indeed an incredibly seductive and incredibly dangerous scientific discovery. A child receives cancer treatment; Chernobyl melts down.

The constant reminder feels a bit condescending to the audience and draws focus away from Curie herself. The filmmakers compulsively draw the connection between the Curie’s work and the destruction it eventually wreaked in a manner that feels like talking down to the audience, for example, cutting between Pierre’s Nobel acceptance speech and the Enola Gay dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Satrapi brings flashes of creative, cinematic innovation in surreal moments of fantasy and magical realism peppered throughout. There’s even a quick flash of animation, the medium in which Satrapi first found acclaim, with “Persepolis,” as Marie and Pierre conceive their first child, the conception itself rendered as an atom bursting. Another particularly remarkable sequence finds Marie in a haze after Pierre’s sudden and accidental death. Images of a grief-stricken Marie are overlaid with radioactively glowing images of modern dancer Loie Fuller, who performed in an elaborate costume of billowing fabric, manipulating the material to emulate fire itself. Women who dared to play with fire: there’s something there, though “Radioactive” doesn’t quite make it all the way.

These flourishes, as well as some striking compositions shot by Danny Boyle’s regular cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, breathe life into this otherwise utterly staid retelling of Curie’s life. Pike is predictably fantastic as the determined, almost obsessive to the point of self-destruction Curie. But despite the talent involved, and the incredible subject matter, the irritating tendency to overexplain to the audience means there’s very little spark to be found in the enervating “Radioactive.”

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“Radioactive”

2 stars

Cast: Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Anya Taylor-Joy.

Directed by Marjane Satrapi.

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, brief nudity and a scene of sensuality.

Available Friday on Amazon Prime Video