Is there a sub-genre of film more inherently flawed than the "biopic?" It is a classification of film that somehow contains within itself severe limitations and diminished expectations. Human lives are rarely story-shaped. Biographical bullet-points make for poor narrative beats. Adherence to fact can play like a grim obligation, while divergence from fact inevitably feels like compromise or contrivance. Very few biopics succeed, because very few lives—accounted honestly—can reveal as coherent a truth, or as powerful an emotional impact, as fiction can provide. (This is one reason we write fictions.) The limitations of the biopic explain, perhaps, why the very best achievements in the form—Lawrence of Arabia, to name an unfair example—are ones we almost never think to sully with the label.
Throughout Radioactive, her new biography of Marie Sklodowska Curie, we can feel director Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) struggling against the usual limitations of the biopic, along with a few others that are unique to her subject. Madame Curie—played here in an admirably flinty performance by Rosamund Pike—was indisputably one of the greatest scientists of her age, a woman whose pioneering work in radioactivity redefined our understanding of the atom and ushered in both the wonders and horrors of the 20th century. But her work was not intrinsically visual—not in a way that makes for good movie-making—and the powerful ramifications of her discoveries were not fully apparent in her lifetime. (Though the film fudges on this point a bit, Curie actually died in 1934 without ever acknowledging that radiation had made her—and a lot of other people—sick.)
All of which is to say that the most dramatic aspects of Curie's work could not be dramatized within a standard biographical treatment of her life. So Satrapi—working from a screenplay by Jack Thorne, based on a graphic novel by Lauren Redniss—attempts to get around this with flash-forwards, reminding us of what the discovery of radioactivity has wrought. We see the standard biopic beats of Curie's life: her courtship and collaboration with husband Pierre (Sam Riley), her struggles against a male-dominated scientific community, her major scientific breakthroughs, her prickly relationship with her children, et cetera. But interspersed throughout Radioactive we also see what Curie never lived to see: the bombing of Hiroshima, the use of radiation to treat cancer, the disaster at Chernobyl.
These narrative extrapolations constitute an honorable attempt to get around the limitations of biography and lend greater dramatic weight to Curie's work. But it is ultimately an unsuccessful one, curiously timid and frustratingly tepid. The anachronistic segments—brief, and a little pedestrian in execution—end up lacking sufficient emotional weight to be anything more than an unnecessary connecting of the dots. Seeing a flash of light consume a busy Japanese street may remind us (if we needed reminding) of the consequences of Curie's work, but it does not grapple with those consequences in any meaningful way. ("Radiation has been used for both good and evil," seems to be the extent of the point Radioactive is willing to make, and it seems determined to make that point without bumming us out too severely.)
And these cinematic end-runs around the borders of Curie's experience actually have the unfortunate effect of distancing us even further from her character, already a barely-fleshed out Wikipedia-entry rendered onscreen. Pike is very good, but she is given too shallow a character to play. (When the script seeks to explore Curie's emotional depth, it can really go no further than a passion for her husband that seems stronger after his death than it was when he was alive.) For the most part, Pike is forced through the paces of what feels like a school-pageant treatment of Curie's life, checking off the biographical high-points through scenes of almost intolerably stiff, painfully literal dialogue. ("Remind me to retrain you out of that glorious need to overstate everything," Marie tells Pierre, while they frolic naked by a lake. It is a note that should have gone to the screenwriter as well.)
And so Thorne's screenplay—drumming through all the standard biopic beats—becomes, ultimately, the thing Satrapi must war against, by almost desperately inserting narrative detours and visual flourishes. Some of them work quite well: A performance (by Drew Jacoby) of the legendary dancer Loïe Fuller's famous "fire dance" achieves a saturated, dreamlike beauty that feels like it could come from a Julie Taymor film. But that's just the problem: This sequence comes early—it is Marie and Pierre's "first date"—and its gorgeous swirling colors turn out to be mere backdrop for a grey and pedestrian conversation between two leads trapped in a plodding educational filmstrip. We long for more creative flourishes, but they are few and far between in Radioactive, and when they come they feel like mere placeholders between the encyclopedic bullet-points of Curie's curriculum vitae. However lovely, they eventually come to feel like the cinematic equivalents of a PowerPoint star-wipe.
Radioactive is finally not a terrible film, but it is a disappointing one, as we watch Satrapi wage, and lose, an internal battle with her own movie. She has tried to do something interesting not with the biographical structure, but around its edges, while leaving its tedious conventions whole and unchallenged. If she had dared to actually split the biopic form open completely—like splitting the atom—she might have achieved what this movie so sorely lacks: energy.