By Leah Greenblatt
July 24, 2020 at 03:04 PM EDT
Laurie Sparham/Amazon Studios

Behind every great man, there is — usually, eventually — a middling-to-great biopic: Steve Jobs, Lincoln, Malcolm X; Ray and Rocketman; Capotes and Capones (sometimes it takes more than one).

Famous women often find that road both bumpier and less traveled. Or maybe just harder to finance; like last year's Harriet and Judy, Radioactive sets out to tell an enormous story — here, the life and times of Marie Curie, the pioneering Polish-born scientist and first female winner of a Nobel Prize — on what feels like a microscopic budget.

That sometimes hamstrings director Marjane Satrapi's intriguing but frustrating drama, a film whose big ideas strain against the staid outlines of traditional screen storytelling — though budget alone can't be blamed for its odd jumps and tonal twists, from earnest biography to magical realism and back again.

Rosamund Pike is Curie, born Maria Sklowdaska in Warsaw in 1867. And much as she did in another recent portrait of a lady, 2018's A Private War, the Gone Girl star works hard to shed her clotted-cream beauty for the truer grit of historical reality. Her Marie is functionally dressed and frazzle-haired, a woman with little time for vanity or social graces.

Her natural state is to be brusque, blunt, almost pathologically stubborn — all things that hardly help when, in an early scene, the young Ms. Sklowdaska stands before a bemused all-male university panel, asking for (or demanding, really) more laboratory space. The only one outside her family who seems to have faith in her research —and tolerance for her eccentricities — is an affable, fox-bearded French chemist named Pierre Curie (Maleficent's Sam Riley), her future partner in both life and lab.

Their love story, and the breakthroughs they achieved together — their work in radioactivity would help lead to everything from X-ray machines to the atomic bomb — form the core of Jack Thorne's script, though Satrapi, the Iranian-born artist and writer behind the brilliant graphic-novels-turned-movies Persopolis and Chicken With Plums, can't seem to help piling on surreal extras.

That works better in certain Julie Taymor-style flights of fancy (a vial of radium that glows like a small green sun, a night sky turned to atoms) than in the clunky flash-forwards that don't so much populate the story as drop into it, wholesale: the testing grounds at Los Alamos, the bomb drop at Hiroshima, a mystery explosion at Chernobyl.

Riley's gentle, steady presence lends ballast to Pike's portrayal of a woman so prickly and ferociously driven that even her own child (Anya Taylor-Joy) often behaves less like a daughter than a wrangler. Though in the end, it's hard not to feel that Curie herself would have wished for more rigor in Radioactive's formula — a film that, for all its ambition and force of feeling, only begins to let the light in. B-

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