The Atom: A Love Affair review – lively doc feels like GSCE physics

Vicki Lesley's well-intentioned science documentary clings to a bizarre framing device and ends up feeling far too shallow

Taking a carefully balanced view of its subject matter without finding much in the way of enlightening new information, The Atom: A Love Affair is one of those unfortunate documentaries that ends up feeling more like a school textbook brought to life than an engaging film in its own right. It’s lively enough to hold the attention of a GCSE science class, but ultimately doesn’t quite justify its own existence.

Narrated by Lily Cole, Atom charts the rise and fall of nuclear power worldwide, from its boon years in the US and UK in the 50s to its controversial status in Europe (popular in France, despised in Germany), via the famous disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Yet it has very little new or deeply insightful to offer – you could get the same information from a secondary school physics curriculum.

To disguise this shallowness and in order to drag Atom out to 90 minutes, director Vicki Lesley resorts to a bizarre and borderline incomprehensible framing device. She presents public and governmental attitudes toward nuclear power as analogous to a tumultuous teen romance, told through public domain clips of 40s and 50s movies. It’s a profoundly odd gimmick, one that does initially entertain purely through unconventionality but eventually grates.

Atom is most interesting when it’s at its most purely informative – archive footage of an early nuclear power plant captures the futuristic thrum of the place, and the old-school hazmat suits are hilariously unwieldy. But as this gives way to interminable political debates that plenty of members of the public are already familiar with, so too will your concentration inevitably wane, no matter how odd Lesley’s presentation. One for the classroom.

The Atom: A Love Affair is now streaming on Curzon Home Video.

Where to watch

More Reviews...

The Great Buster: A Celebration review – icon of silent film is still the pinnacle

Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary on Buster Keaton is a decent portrait of an early cinema hero – but you’ll learn more from Keaton’s own, uproarious work

76 Days review – eerie look at the start of the pandemic

This brave chronicle of four Wuhan hospitals battling the first cases of COVID-19 makes for bleak but essential viewing

Time review – two decades of love intercut by an unjust America

This deeply moving documentary maps the failings of the prison-industrial complex through one woman’s journey to reunite with her husband

Monsoon review – quiet and contemplative journey to Vietnam

Henry Golding stars as a man returning to his country of birth in this thoughtful, entrancing travelogue from filmmaker Hong Khaou


Best Films to Watch in London and Stream This Week

From cinema releases to streaming gems, including a family-friendly spin on Sherlock Holmes and Ethan Hawke as an infamous "mad" scientist

In Five Films: Ethan Hawke

Extremely prolific, always interesting, we rundown five essential performances to coincide with the release of his latest film Tesla

Every Bong Joon-ho Film, Ranked

With Memories of Murder and Barking Dogs Never Bite both on re-release in the UK, we take a deep dive into Bong's films so far...

In Five Films: Keanu Reeves

To mark the release of Bill & Ted Face the Music, we look back at Keanu Reeves’ singular stardom in five key performances