TIFF Film Review: Rosamund Pike Stars in ‘Radioactive’ and Beanie Feldstein Shines in ‘How to Build a Girl’

2019 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Two very interesting leading ladies star in two very different films that both had their premieres this weekend in Toronto.

The biopic “Radioactive” has a scattered depiction of its subject, Marie Curie. Its beautiful visual aesthetic is chaotic, held together by an exemplary performance from the lead actress, Rosamund Pike.

“Radioactive” is a look at the life of chemist Marie Curie (Pike). It focuses on her discovery of the elements polonium and radium, along with her relationship with husband Pierre (Sam Riley), and the xenophobia she faced as a Polish citizen living in France. Flashbacks revealing Curie’s childhood with her ill mother are thrown in at random.

The screenplay by Jack Thorne emphasizes key events in Curie’s life rather than a coherent story, and it becomes an example of how not to make a biopic. While it is vital to focus on what the subject accomplished, it’s just as necessary to go deeper into the person’s genius. “Radioactive” follows the tired biopic trope of going back and forth between the protagonist’s older and younger years, which proves to be unnecessary.

After breaking through with “Gone Girl,” Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike has had trouble finding films as good as she is. “Radioactive” sadly continues that tradition. Thankfully, she elevates the material with her quietly persistent portrayal of Madame Curie. This is not a performance that could put her in the Best Actress race due to its reserved nature. But, it’s proof that Pike is always guaranteed to give a great performance no matter how underwhelming the film she’s in may be.

Director Marjane Satrapi also attempts to overcome the screenplay machinations. Both Satrapi and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle try to make this a worthwhile experience with a kaleidoscopic fashion. All sorts of colors accompany the screen, and do so in the most mundane sequences. The synthesized score from Evgueni and Sacha Galperine also gives the picture some needed vivacity and attempts to salvage some greatness.

Ultimately, “Radioactive” suffers from being mixed with too many chemicals. It has vital ingredients to make the perfect element like a great leading performance and some commendable filmmaking aesthetics, but it nearly implodes like an atomic bomb. What could’ve been a biopic as bold as Madame Curie herself ends up being one that follows the biopic playbook too closely.

“Radioactive” is being distributed by Amazon Studios and has no confirmed release date.

GRADE: (★★½)

After stealing the show in “Lady Bird” as the supportive best friend, Beanie Feldstein’s star has really risen. So much so that she’s now getting her own starring vehicles, first with”Booksmart” and now “How to Build a Girl,” which bears some similarities to Greta Gerwig’s beloved coming-of-age story. While its story isn’t identical, it demonstrates the protagonist’s need to escape her humdrum town life.

Based on the novel by Caitlin Moran, “How to Build a Girl” follows the story of Johanna Morrigan (Feldstein). Johanna comes from a working class community and dreams of becoming a successful writer. In order to thrive in her desired industry, Johanna reinvents herself as “Dolly Wilde,” a sharp-tongued and unmerciful reporter. As she starts thriving, her true voice gets called into question.

Although Johanna provides for her family with her unfiltered writings, the work betrays her genuine self. It’s clear that her need to tap into her worst personality instincts stems from a depressive place. Along with Feldstein, Moran’s script never judges Johanna as she continues using her destructive “Dolly Wilde” persona.

As Johanna becomes “Dolly Wilde,” Feldstein uses the opportunity to demonstrate her comedic timing. She plays the melancholic Johanna and the crass Dolly as if they’re completely different entities. In addition to her star magnetism, Feldstein demonstrates articulate character work. She can carry a film like it’s nothing and deserves even more opportunities to do so.

The supporting actors also impress even if some of their roles aren’t expansive. The standouts in the supporting cast are Alfie Allen as the singer of a band Johanna covers, and Paddy Considine as her loving father. Actors Chris O’Dowd and two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson do wonders with their small cameos.

Due to adept direction from Coky Giedroyc, “How to Build a Girl” is also depicted with majestic flair. As Johanna navigates her life path, she imagines pictures of characters and idolized historical figures in her room speaking to her as a method of coping with her dejection. This offers insight into the mental illness some artists face and the “talking pictures” device becomes a way of handling that topic with sensitivity.

In spite of its serious subject matter, “How to Build a Girl” possesses plenty of levity. It’s a bittersweet coming-of-age story about a teenager slowly learning to be perfectly incomplete. It reminds us how life comes with just doing what you do and being yourself while making mistakes along the way. Whenever we fall down, all we can do is pick up the pieces and get back on our feet.

“How to Build a Girl” is currently seeking U.S. distribution and is premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival.

GRADE: (★★★★)

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