Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Radioactive (2020) - Movie Review

Time for round three of our look at Jack Thorne’s scripted work over 2020, and judging by how the last two turned out, I admit that I wasn’t expecting much from this. Also, as a bit of a change of pace from my other looks at films adapted from comics this year, I haven’t read Lauren Redniss’ source material (mainly because the only access I have to it presently is the audiobook, which for a comparison between visual mediums is pretty useless), so I’m once again going to let Thorne’s writing stand or fall on its own. And while I concede that this is yet another instance of the visuals overselling the text, I’d also argue that this is way, way easier to recommend than Secret Garden or Dirt Music.

It starts out on sturdy footing being helmed by someone familiar with bringing biographical graphic novels to the big screen in director Marjane Satrapi, better known for adapting her own work with Persepolis and Chicken With Plums, as well as directing Ryan Reynolds in The Voices. It’s easy to see why she would be on-board with adapting this work, and when paired with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, they sure as hell make a case for this film as visual art, to the point where I’m even more curious about the source material, if only to see if it’s as vibrant as this film version.

These are the kinds of images I can easily see being borne out of sequential art, from how the green glow of radium serves as signature colour for Marie Curie, to the flashbacks of her childhood being literally rose-tinted, to some of the subtler instances of orange/blue dichotomy I’ve seen in years, right down to the Fire Dance sequence that I can only describe as kinetic synesthesia; like physical movement translated directly into colour. It is remarkably striking, pushing beyond the efforts of other directors building on Thorne’s screenplays… and it helps that his work itself isn’t too bad this time around either.

The vibe I usually get from the man’s writing, that it feels like a soft echo of the original story he’s working from, isn’t nearly as prevalent here. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an Oscar-pining biopic and it largely sticks to those notes, but credit where it’s due for the sheer scope of that story. Since we’re working off of a graphic novel version of actual events, treating this as historical gospel feels a bit off, but that makes itself apparent in how it treats Curie’s work on radioactivity, radium and, most importantly, what that work would result in after the fact.

From radiotherapy to Little Boy, the film covers a lot of ground on top of its examination of Curie’s own life. With how often these films end up leaving the larger historical context for the end-of-film text-on-black-background (which, admittedly, also happens here), it’s rather refreshing to see that as part of the narrative itself. And as an example of the ripple effect this kind of ground-breaking science creates, it makes for a murkier but more holistic approach to the genre.

It also factors heavily into the characterisation of Marie Curie herself, where the film’s visual pedigree is matched with some palpable emotionality through the writing and the performance by Rosamund Pike. A forthright, if skittish, scientist who specifically says she wants to confront scientists who think the Earth is flat and prove them wrong, the recurring effect of her work culminates in a lot of discoverer’s guilt, where all the damage mankind could do (and already had done) because of this newly-discovered material weighs heavy on her shoulders. It may get juggled around a bit with the sexism and racism Curie faced in the wake of all that, but it remains quite compelling and manages to sell her accomplishment while balancing both the good and the bad that resulted from it, something that rarely even gets brought up in biopics of this stature.

Overall, this makes for a tremendous break from what I was becoming convinced was the standard for Jack Thorne’s ability to write films. Emotionally carried by Rosamund Pike’s understated but strong lead performance, and artistically carried by some of the most striking use of colour I’ve seen all year, it marks another fine addition to Marjane Satrapi’s filmography and a solid look at one of modern science’s great pioneers.

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