As of late, it appears that large sectors of the entertainment industry have joined in a nobly intended yet poorly executed project to promote an increased female presence in Stem fields. Call it the Hidden Figures effect if you like, but an increasing number of releases have featured girls and women exploring science and technology, from the zoetrope-inventing moppet of Disney’s recent Dumbo remake to, er, Angry Birds 2. While the real world would be undeniably bettered by gender parity in laboratories and other workplaces, this small movement has made for some frightfully bad art. The messaging errs without exception on the side of the heavy-handed, and characterization often suffers from an imperative to shape a human being into an exemplar of model behavior. When combined, entertainment and moral instruction can have disastrously unstable reactions.
This mini-trend hits a critical mass with Marjane Satrapi’s Radioactive, which gives the by-the-numbers biopic treatment to the great Marie Curie (Rosamund Pike). The film flits through the defining moments in her life: meeting her husband and lifelong research partner Pierre (Sam Riley), discovering the elements polonium and radium, two children and two Nobel prizes, the tragic loss of her spouse to a trampling horse, and her scandalous affair with her other colleague Paul Langevin (Aneurin Barnard). All the while, both Curie and the film remain firmly committed to the cause of scientific advancement, which we know because she says so several times over the course of the script. It’s as if a string hangs off of the back of her spine, and when a key grip offscreen pulls it, she recites one of a handful of inspirational catchphrases.
Satrapi, a thrilling talent when she brought her graphic novel Persepolis to the screen, explicitly and aggressively champions the virtue of being smart, then treats her audience like they haven’t got two functioning brain cells to rub together. This is a film that, in Dewey Cox-ian fashion, believes the audience can’t identify a historical figure until somebody says their complete name out loud. This is a film that decides we must actually watch a random child create an atomic model to understand that Curie left a lasting legacy. This is a film that forces Curie to make hilariously foreboding statements about the possibility of her advances in radiation being co-opted for unsavory ends, then flashes forward to the atomic bomb melting the happy citizens of Hiroshima to make sure everyone gets the point. Is Satrapi worried that the viewer isn’t aware of the devastation in the Japanese theater, or just that they don’t realize that it was sad? Either way, the admiration for a woman who knew so much about so much clashes with the unspoken assumption that the audience knows absolutely nothing about anything.
Even in their near-worship of Curie, Satrapi and the screenwriter Jack Thorne ultimately do their idol dirty. While it is a matter of public record that Curie had a sexually liberated side to her, an imperative to make her sexy contradicts her frequently stated desire to be prized for her intellect. (One leering shot slowly pans left to reveal the esteemed Dr Curie’s slammin’ bod, and all of a sudden the chasteness of the superficially identical RBG doesn’t look so bad.) After Curie spends the first hour repeating that she won’t be held back by love, she spends the rest of the run time pining for her departed Pierre, perhaps an unintended side-effect of Thorne adapting a biography of both Curies into a vehicle for one of them. The material even drives Pike to behave like a more amateurish actress than she’s proven herself to be, weeping and howling as if she’s playing to the cheap seats.
If this film does lift up Marie Curie, it does so for a two-dimensional Marie Curie of its own creation. Everything that should make her a richer character is fake. Her flaw of excessive ambition is fake, a job-interview answer about one’s greatest weakness meant to make the candidate seem even stronger. Her key vulnerability is fake, as no amount of independent Googling has confirmed that Curie suffered from a debilitating phobia of hospitals, a trait that feels hard to believe for a good reason. Eventually, her ambition itself comes to seem fake as well, a progressive talking point filtered through history into a watery, unchallenging feminist ethic. Curie was a formidable mind, a fount of desire, a Polish emigrant living fearlessly in a xenophobic Paris; here, she’s reduced to a poster girl for go-getter-ism. Prolonged exposure to this film won’t give anybody cancer, but like the glowing vial Curie inadvisably sleeps with as a memento of her lost love, it exerts a subtle toxic influence that could have a catastrophic impact if left unchecked for too long.
Radioactive is showing at the Toronto film festival and will be released at a later date