Publicity described Radioactive as a film about a scientist with flash-forwards to show the results of her work. “Sounds boring,” I thought. Wrong. Never have I used the word “mesmerizing” about any film before, but Radioactive is exactly that.
Director Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis, The Voices) and screenwriter Jack Thorne (Wonder, The Fades ) combined their talents to create a film that excels in both story and graphical presentation. It uses the power of cinema to tell two stories at once and does it in a totally captivating way.
Radioactive examines the life of physicist and chemist Marie Sklodowska Curie, played by Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, Watership Down). Curie discovered, among other things, radioactivity, and was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize and the only woman to win it twice.
Life in a Moment
The film begins at the end.
Structurally, Radioactive relies on the belief that as we die, our entire life flashes before our eyes. This is the journey we take with Madame Curie. An aged Curie collapses in a hospital and nurses put her on a gurney. Viewers see the hospital ceiling as she is pushed down the hallway and then share that last vision with her.
This structure allows the film to move freely in time. She clashes with members of the male-dominated French scientific establishment. As a little girl she comforts her dying mother in a hospital. She meets her eventual husband Pierre. The story develops like a mosaic out of these small pieces.
The film also jumps forward in time. To illustrate the unknowable outcome of scientific discovery, the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima is recreated. A flash-forward also moves to a hospital in the 1950s where a child receives radiation therapy for cancer. These moments evoke strong emotions.
Words, Sights, Sound
The writing and visuals enhance the story. There is a “Big Bang Theory moment” when Marie encounters future husband Pierre at a theater. She tells him, “I read your paper.” He replies, “I read your paper, too. And I enjoyed it.” This, apparently, is how scientists flirt.
Rosamund Pike as Marie delivers my favorite line from the film. While arguing with her sister about whether to stay in France, Marie says: “A hole in the ground in Poland is far superior to Paris.” Holes in the ground then recur as a visual element.
Another visual highpoint occurs when Pierre proposes, and they share their first kiss. Pierre and Marie have been walking at night along a dark street. In the distance some workers are doing something with a fire. When the kiss occurs, they are blocking the view of the workers, but we see smoke rising, as if from their embrace, and then flames.
The editing also impressed me. Marie’s first child is “created” by a visual trip from impregnation to morning sickness to baby all in a minute.
I found the music fascinating, too. A mix of electronic and ethereal sounds pervade the film – at times mystical, but at the same time suggesting a solution boiling in a laboratory.
Game of Thorne’s
Film Independent, an LA based organization for industry pros and film lovers, sponsored an online Q&A with writer Jack Thorne.
Jenifer Wilson, senior programmer for Film Independent, talked with Thorne about his writer’s journey. She asked him how he broke in.
Thorne explained, “I’m a person who likes to throw as much stuff against the wall as possible. I made short films and wrote for theater.”
Thorne particularly enjoyed the theatrical experience. “The wonderful thing about theater,” he said, “is that you get to see your story get made over and over again.”
His experience with Radioactive was different.
Wilson asked him if director Marjane Satrapi had him on the set, consulting as the film was made.
“Not much,” he said. “Marjane had a story she wanted to tell, and she was there making that film. She would have had me there for television. The writer needs to be there for that. With film it’s a director’s medium. Maybe I give up too easily. Your story is the script, but the director’s is the film.”
Wilson asked if he had needed to do much research for Radioactive.
“The thing I needed someone to explain to me,” he admitted, “was her genius. This is how the atom works. This is the misunderstanding she corrected. They gave me science lessons.”
Wilson wondered how Thorne felt about the women’s rights issues raised by the film.
Thorne observed, “Pierre was pretty enlightened for his time. He had unrealized prejudices, but from what I gathered he never tried to make it less than a full partnership. The thing with their marriage and the extraordinary thing about Marie’s life, is that this incredible scientist took on the world and even when she succeeded, the world rejected her. And then she dusted herself off and did it again.”
This film destroyed two of my filmic prejudices. I picked up the belief that anything going “straight to DVD” (and later, to streaming) was going there because it wasn’t good enough to go to a theater. Radioactive was as good as or better than any film I remember seeing at a theater. The second prejudice: you can’t expect a great film to be made from a graphic novel (a.k.a., a comic book). Again, Radioactive blew away that belief.
The film can be purchased online and viewed through Amazon Prime. Watch the trailer below.