Review: ‘Radioactive,’ starring Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley and Anya Taylor-Joy

July 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Rosamund Pike in “Radioactive” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“Radioactive” 

Directed by Marjane Satrapi

Culture Representation: Taking place in France (and briefly in Poland) from 1878 to 1934, the biographical drama “Radioactive” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and black people) representing the middle-class in telling the story of scientist Marie Curie.

Culture Clash: Curie battled against sexism and xenophobia, and she was at the center of a scandal when her affair with a married man went public.

Culture Audience: “Radioactive” will appeal primarily to people who like biopics about scientists or women who break through in male-dominated professions, with an emphasis on melodrama over substance.

Rosamund Pike and Sam Riley in “Radioactive” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Watching a biographical movie about a scientist, even if the scientist is a world-famous pioneer, might not appeal to a lot of people. And it’s a greater challenge when the story is set more than a century ago. But perhaps to ward off any potential viewer boredom, the filmmakers of the Marie Curie biopic “Radioactive” made the movie as if it’s a both a music video (with lots of flashy, quick-cutting editing) and a melodrama (with plenty of soap opera-type dialogue and over-acting). It’s an overcompensation that ultimately sinks this movie, which had the potential to be a fascinating, award-worthy film, but instead ended up as an unevenly toned misfire.

It’s clear that “Radioactive” was intended to be an “Oscar bait” movie, considering that it was partially financed by Working Title, a British production company that has won several Academy Awards for its films, including 2017’s “Darkest Hour,” 2014’s “The Theory of Everything” and 2012’s “Les Misérables.” “Radioactive” cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle won an Oscar for 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire.” And several Oscar nominees were involved in making the film, including star Rosamund Pike (who plays Marie Curie); director Marjane Satrapi (“Persepolis”); and producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner.

However, all that talent still doesn’t make “Radioactive” an Oscar-worthy film. Jack Thorne (who has done work mostly in British television) wrote the screenplay as an adaptation from Lauren Redniss’ graphic novel “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout.” And that’s exactly what the movie looks like on screen: a movie version of a graphic novel.

Scenes that would have benefited from richly witty conversations and glorious, lingering camera shots are instead served with basic, simplistic dialogue and whiplash-like editing that cuts a scene like boxy panels in a graphic novel. Pike certainly gives it her all in this performance, but she’s hemmed in by the hokey screenplay that portrays Marie Curie as less like a brilliant scientist and more like a whiny and egotistical shrew.

The movie begins in Paris in 1934, the year that Marie died of Aplastic anemia from exposure to radiation, at the age of 66. Marie is being rushed to a hospital, and while she’s lying on a gurney, she starts having flashbacks of her life. Those flashbacks are the majority of this story.

The flashbacks begin in Paris in 1893, when an unmarried Marie (whose maiden name was Skłodowska) was the only female scientist working in the University of Paris industrial laboratory of Professor Gabriel Lippmann (played by Simon Russell Beale). Marie, a native of Poland who moved to Paris for her university studies, had changed her first name from Maria to Marie, in order to better fit in with French citizens. In 1893, she had earned a degree in physics and was enrolled in a graduate program while working at Lippmann’s lab. (She would eventually earn a doctorate, supervised by Lippmann, in 1903.)

The movie doesn’t waste time in trumpeting its intent to show Marie as a feisty feminist who constantly has to battle sexism and misogyny. The first flashback scene is of Marie storming into a room where Lippmann and his all-male team of colleagues are seated. She angrily demands to know why her lab equipment has been moved again.

Lippmann tells Marie that it’s because her lab equipment takes up too much space. When she mentions that some of her male colleagues have lab equipment that takes up even more space than her equipment does, Lippmann tells her that she’s been fired. When she protests her dismissal, Lippmann tells her that if she doesn’t like it, she can start her own lab. Marie replies dejectedly that she doesn’t have the funds.

Meanwhile, Marie and a handsome stranger see each other on a street and make small talk. She sees this stranger again while they happen to be attending the same dance performance. They find themselves standing right next to each other, as they watch a female dancer twirling around in a white flowing costume, like she’s auditioning for a Cirque du Soleil show in a future century. This is the “meet cute” moment, because he is a scientist/professor whose name is Pierre Curie (played by Sam Riley), and he confesses to Marie that he’s been admiring her from afar.

Pierre tells Marie that he already knows her name and who she is because (1) “You’re one of only 23 female scientists with the department; (2) I’ve heard about your run-ins with Professor Lippmann; and (3) I read your paper on the magnetic properties of steel. It contains some exceptional science.” Of course, Marie is flattered by his compliment and gives Pierre a compliment too: “I have read your paper on crystallization, which I enjoyed very much.”

In real life, Pierre and Marie were introduced by a mutual friend, but that might have been too boring for the filmmakers, so they invented this scene to make Marie and Pierre’s “meet cute” scene seem more romantic, since the dance performance is filmed to make everything look more fantastically beautiful. At the time that Marie and Pierre met, he was an instructor at the City of Paris Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution. But Pierre had his own up-and-down relationship with the University of Paris (which was his alma mater too), so Pierre and Marie bond over being “misunderstood” by the university, and they connect over their mutual love of science.

Pierre offers Marie a room to work in his lab. She politely declines, and then she changes her mind after he invites her to look at the work space. Marie firmly tells Pierre that she will not be his mistress, in case he thinks that she’s supposed to repay him by letting him have sex with her. Pierre says that it isn’t his intention, but he does tell her with that certain look in his eye: “I have an instinct about you.”

Of course, since most people watching this movie already know that Marie and Pierre ended up falling in love and getting married, this part of the relationship is shown very quickly. The next thing you know, after a few scenes of Marie and Pierre working together, he proposes (in the most soap opera-ish way possible), they’re married and then expecting their first child.

“Radioactive” does not show much of Marie’s life before she moved to Paris, except for flashbacks of her as a child (played by Harriet Turnbull) having grief-filled moments visiting her terminally ill mother (played by Georgina Rich) in a hospital. (Marie’s mother Bronisława died of tuberculosis when Marie was 10 years old.) According to the movie, this trauma led to Marie’s lifelong fear of being in a hospital. This fear is portrayed in the movie as full-blown panic attacks whenever Marie is asked to go to a hospital and ends up refusing to go.

The only other link to Marie’s Polish past that’s portrayed in the movie is Marie’s sister Bronisława, also known as Bronia (played by Sian Brooke), who was older than Marie by two years and was Marie’s closest female confidant. Bronia doesn’t do much in this movie except give calm and supportive advice when Marie inevitably has to rant or complain about something. (And she gets angry a lot in this movie.)

It’s clear that the filmmakers didn’t want “Radioactive” to be a movie that’s “too smart” for the general public, so Marie and Pierre’s scientific work is explained and depicted in the simplest of terms. When the couple gets a lab in Versailles, France, they discover and present two new elements: polonium and radium. Marie also coins the term “radioactivity.”

Marie and Pierre get widespread acclaim, while viewers of this movie have to sit through a lot of cringeworthy dialogue, with Marie and Pierre saying things like, “We have changed science forever” and “I can feel our work glowing out. I can feel it changing the world.” And if these “change the world” proclamations weren’t enough, “Radioactive” has several moments that cut into the story to actually show examples how the Curies’ discoveries were used in the future.

There’s the scene of a Japanese father and son experiencing the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. There’s the scene of an atomic bomb being tested in Nevada in 1961, complete with a model house being bombed and life-sized dolls melting inside. There’s the scene of Russian workers rushing in a panic during the Chernobyl accident in 1986.

Of course, when two spouses work together, there are bound to be conflicts and ego clashes. In 1903, Marie, Pierre and Henri Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. Marie’s name was added only after Pierre insisted on it because of her crucial contributions to their discoveries. And so, Marie made history by becoming the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in science.

However, because she was a woman, Marie was not allowed to give a speech at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm. Pierre says in the movie that Marie could have attended the ceremony, but she declined because she had recently given birth. This is a factual error in the movie, because Pierre and Marie were awarded the Nobel Prize in December 1903. They had two daughters: Irène (born in 1897) and Ève (born in 1904). Ève was born in December 1904, a full year after that Nobel Prize ceremony.

And in the movie, it’s shown that Marie gets very angry with Pierre for deciding to go to the ceremony without her. Did she really expect him to stay at home with her and not go to the ceremony to accept this prestigious award on behalf of both of them? Yes, according to this movie.

Even though Pierre effusively gave praise and credit to Marie in his Nobel Prize speech, that’s still not enough for Marie. When Pierre gets home, she rips into him, as if he committed a major betrayal. As far as Marie is concerned, she did more work than Pierre did, and therefore she deserves more recognition and praise than he gets.

And she cruelly tells Pierre that she will always be smarter than he is. “You stole my brilliance!” she shrieks at him during one of their quarrels over him attending the Nobel Prize ceremony without her. We’ll never know if Marie ever uttered those words to Pierre, but the movie definitely portrays Pierre as a long-suffering husband who has to put up with a mean-spirited wife who has a massive ego.

No one is expecting Marie Curie to be put on a pedestal and look like a saint. But one of the problems with “Radioactive” is that it doesn’t really show Marie being a lot more brilliant than her husband, to justify all the arrogance she has in the movie. The movie shows them working side-by-side as, more or less, equal partners.

And all the temper tantrums that Marie has in “Radioactive” make her look unprofessional to the point where the movie undermines any respect that the filmmakers might have intended for this pioneering scientist. To make matters worse, “Radioactive” continues down the soap opera route when it shows Marie’s life after Pierre tragically died in a carriage accident in 1906.

Marie is understandably devastated by this loss. The movie portrays Marie as someone who was so overcome with grief over Pierre’s death that she began to have hallucinations/visions of seeing him. You get the feeling that the filmmakers would’ve gone as far as Marie consulting a psychic to talk to Pierre from the dead, but that wouldn’t be very scientific, would it?

Instead, there’s a scene where Marie has a breakdown with a photographer, because in Marie’s distraught state of mind, she thinks that there can be a photo conjured up of the spirit of her husband. “Please let me see my husband again!” she shouts numerous times in this over-the-top scene. It looks like a series of retakes from a soap opera.

Two close friends of Marie and Pierre Curie are a married couple named Paul Langevin (played by Anuerin Barnard) and Jeanne Langevin (played by Katherine Parkinson), who are seen earlier in the movie having a pleasant couples dinner with Marie and Pierre. But after Pierre dies, Marie and Paul end up having an affair, and he moves in with her.

The way that the affair is portrayed in the movie, Marie tells Paul that she isn’t in love with him, but he’s clearly in love with her. Marie is obviously using Paul as a way to cope with her grief. And the film makes this abundantly clear when it shows Marie waking up next to Paul and initially hallucinating that Pierre is in his place.

Marie also doesn’t seem too concerned about how this infidelity relationship is affecting her two young children. When Irène and Ève see that their mother has a new man in her bed, and they go in her bedroom to try to talk to her, she asks them if they are hungry. When they say no, she then coldly dismisses them and tells them that if they’re not hungry, then they need to leave her alone.

Of course, the affair causes a major scandal when it’s made public. In the movie, Paul’s wife Jeanne tells Marie that she hired a private investigator and leaked information about the affair to the press. Marie is then the target of intense bullying by strangers, who yell ethnic insults at her about her Polish heritage and tell to go back to Poland.

And so, by the time Marie won her second Nobel Prize (this time for chemistry) in 1911, there was a lot of controversy over her getting the prize because of the scandal in her personal life. People not only protested that she was attending the ceremony but also that she received the prize in the first place. (The movie doesn’t really address the hypocrisy of people never protesting over the untold number of male Nobel Prize winners who openly committed adultery.) Marie was allowed to give a speech at that Nobel Prize ceremony, but the scandal and controversy really tainted what could have been a completely triumphant moment.

Irène is shown as a young woman (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) who would also become a scientist, but the young-adult Irène doesn’t have enough screen time in the movie to get a good sense of what kind of mentorship she got from her mother. It’s yet another missed opportunity in a movie that is more concerned about showing Marie being self-absorbed in her own achievements and the recognition that she thinks she deserved.

Marie Curie remains the only woman to win a Nobel Prize in two scientific fields. But all of her accomplishments and intellectual prowess are devalued by the way “Radioactive” reduces her story to a melodrama. The movie frames her major life events as results of a relationship with whichever man she was sleeping with at the time.

If you were to believe what’s in this movie, Marie saw her first Nobel Prize not as an achievement that she could proudly share with her husband but as a weapon to use against him out of spite, just because other people didn’t want her to give an acceptance speech at the ceremony. That is one of the lasting impressions of Marie Curie that “Radioactive” wants to give, but surely her legacy deserves better.

Prime Video premiered “Radioactive” on July 24, 2020.

Review: ‘Sometimes Always Never,’ starring Bill Nighy, Sam Riley, Jenny Agutter, Tim McInnerny and Alice Lowe

June 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sam Riley and Bill Nighy in “Sometimes Always Never” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Sometimes Always Never”

Directed by Carl Hunter

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed cities in England, the comedy drama “Sometimes Always Never” has almost all white cast (with one biracial/black character) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A tailor and his adult son have emotional tensions with each other, stemming from the childhood disappearance of the tailor’s other son.

Culture Audience: “Sometimes Always Never” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Bill Nighy and dry British humor.

Jenny McGutter and Tim McInnerny in “Sometimes Always Never” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

Bill Nighy tends to play a lot of characters with a droll sense of humor, so the dark comedy/drama “Sometimes Always Never” is right up his alley. This quirky film, which takes place in suburban England, won’t appeal to everyone, but viewers who enjoy “Sometimes Always Never” will probably like the film more for the actors’ performances than for the movie’s somewhat thin plot.

Directed by Carl Hunter and written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, “Sometimes Always Never” focuses mainly on the tension-filled relationship between a widowed tailor named Alan Mellor (played by Nighy) and his son Peter (played by Sam Riley), who can’t go a day together without bickering with each other. The reason they don’t seem to particularly get along is because years ago, when Peter was a boy, his brother Michael disappeared after storming out of their home during an argument while Michael was playing Scrabble with Peter and Alan. Michael has remained missing all these years later.

The mystery of Michael’s disappearance has affected both men in different ways, even though they both have similar unspoken resentment and guilt over the disappearance. Alan thinks Michael might still be alive, while Peter is convinced that Michael is probably dead.

Alan has become obsessed with Scrabble and finds any way he can to conjure up theories that he can somehow find Michael again by playing Scrabble. He plays Scrabble online and tells Peter about on online rapport he’s developed with a Scrabble gamer who goes by the name Skinny Thesaurus. Peter says he hates Scrabble and expresses his distaste over Alan’s far-fetched theories and continued obsession with this word game.

Alan is so stuck in the past over Michael’s disappearance that he still hands out a missing-person photo of Michael to strangers, even though the photo is of Michael as a child. It’s one of the first things that viewers see Alan doing in the movie’s opening scene, which takes place at an almost deserted beach.

Peter meets Alan at the beach to pick him up in his car, so they can go on a solemn journey together. The reason for this out-of-town trip? A body has been found that could be Michael. Alan and Peter have to travel to the morgue to identify the body.

During the trip, the father and son trade verbal barbs at each other, including their ongoing debates about synonyms and what words can legitimately be used in a Scrabble game. Peter is impatient about this trip and tells Alan that he’s got to go back as soon as possible to his wife, Sue (played by Alice Lowe), who’s a chemical scientist. Alan says to Peter, “I’m sure I’m going deaf. I don’t hear half of what you say.”

When Alan and Peter check into their hotel, the bickering continues. In the hotel lounge, they meet a married couple named Arthur (played by Tim McInnerny) and Margaret (played by Jenny Agutter) and make some small talk. The conversation inevitably turns to Scrabble, and it isn’t long before Alan, Margaret and Arthur start playing Scrabble together in the lounge, while Peter has left to go to his hotel room.

While Arthur takes a restroom break, Margaret confides in Alan that her husband used to be a singer who would record albums of cover songs for record companies looking to cash in on hits that were popular at the time. One of the cover songs he recorded is Bonnie Tyler’s “It’s a Heartache,” which is heard later in the story. Margaret also tells Alan that the reason why she and Arthur are in town is because they have to identify the body of their son who went missing when he was a child.

During the Scrabble game, Alan doesn’t tell Margaret and Arthur that he’s in town for the same reason. Arthur and Margaret find out the next day when they see Alan and Peter at the morgue at the same time. (It’s revealed in the movie if the child at the morgue is from either family.)

Peter gets very upset when he finds out that Alan was a fierce competitor with Arthur during the Scrabble game, and Alan ended up winning £200 from Arthur. Peter offers to pay back the money to Arthur and Margaret, but they politely decline. Peter scolds Alan for taking advantage of the couple, knowing that they are going through the same trauma of identifying the body. Alan just shrugs and says that he couldn’t help himself.

During the trip, Alan stays with Peter and his family, which includes Peter and Susie’s teenage son Jack (played by Louis Healy), a loner who spends most of his free time playing online video games. When Alan tells Peter that he’s concerned about Jack spending so much time on the computer, Peter replies: “Why would that be a worry? He’s at home. He’s not on the streets. He hasn’t gone missing.” Ouch.

As the story unfolds, there are other things that Peter brings up from the past when he argues with Alan. Peter hated that Alan had a habit of giving Peter cheap toys and games that were knock-offs of the originals. And because Peter’s mother died when he was a child (it isn’t specified when she passed away), Peter still feels resentment that he was raised by a father who focused a lot of energy on finding Michael.

There’s a minor subplot of the dynamics between Jack and his adult relatives. Jack and Alan form somewhat of a kinship when Alan becomes fascinated with Jack’s online computer games. Meanwhile, Sue has a habit of embarrassing Jack at bus stops, where he meticulously plans to be at the same time as a teenage girl named Rachel (played by Ella-Grace Gregoire), whom Jack has had a crush on for a while.

As for the movie’s title of “Sometimes Always Never,” that comes from a scene in the film where Alan is showing Jack some tailoring tips for suits. Alan tells Jack that when it comes to a suit jacket’s first three buttons, the first one should “sometimes” be buttoned, the second one should “always” be button, and the third should “never” be buttoned.

Alan has his own tailor shop (called Mellors Tailors) but the movie shows him doing very little work in his chosen profession. There’s that grandfather-grandson scene with Alan and Jack. And there’s another scene where Alan is shown alone at the shop, as if business is slow. Alan’s line of work actually isn’t that necessary for the plot, and the only real purpose is seemingly because the button advice he gave Jack ended up being used as the movie’s title.

There’s a scene in the movie where Alan, Sue, Jack and Rachel are playing a Scrabble board game together. Peter is watching nearby. Alan questions Sue’s use of a scientific word, while Peter tells Alan not to question his wife’s scientific knowledge. Alan persists anyway and looks up the validity of the word in a dictionary. Peter explodes with anger.

It’s clear that what Peter is angry about is really not about Alan questioning Sue’s word knowledge but about feeling like an outsider in his own household. And perhaps there’s some jealousy that Alan is forming a closer bond to Jack than Peter even had with Alan. And things get even more tense when Alan becomes convinced that an anonymous online Scrabble gamer is really the missing Michael who’s sending clues about his whereabouts.

“Sometimes Always Never” frequently uses a technique of having a particular word and its definition shown before each of the movie’s three acts. The movie has the look and feel of a stage play, not just because there’s a small number of people in the cast but also because of the lo-fi production design by Tim Dickel and art direction by Guto Humphreys. (The driving scenes in the car were obviously done in front of a green or blue screen.)

The visual look of the movie (from cinematographer Richard Stoddard) is kind modern yet retro, with copious use of low lighting for the interior scenes. Almost all of the buildings in the film have interior walls painted green, blue and red. These bright colors for walls in houses or a hotel are not very common for suburban England. It seems as if the filmmakers wanted to give the impression that this is a more whimsical England, compared to what’s normally seen in movies.

Although the acting from Nighy and Riley is very good, and the movie does a convincing flipping of traditional parent-child roles (Alan is impulsive and slightly rebellious, while Peter is more cautious and scolding), “Sometimes Always Never” has pacing that’s a little too sluggish at times. People will enjoy this movie best if they’ve got about 90 minutes to spare and aren’t expecting a lot of fast-paced action, loads of suspense or obvious jokes.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Sometimes Always Never” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on June 12, 2020. The film’s U.S. digital and VOD release is on July 10, 2020. “Sometimes Always Never” was originally released in the United Kingdom and several other countries in 2019.

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