If there’s one female scientist who most Americans have heard of, it’s Marie Curie. And why not? Her scientific credentials are impeccable: she discovered two elements, radium and polonium, won two Nobel Prizes, for Physics in 1903 and for Chemistry in 1911, and became the first female professor at the University of Paris. Two other qualities may be equally important in explaining her acceptability as the one female scientist enshrined in our elementary school curricula and popular culture alike: she was married and had a family (both husband Pierre and daughter Irene also won Nobel Prizes), and she’s safely from another time and place (19th and early 20th centuries, Poland and France). The latter means she can be regarded in a somewhat mythical light, and this distancing allows viewers to admire her struggles to be educated, do scientific work, and be recognized for her achievements, while blithely ignoring the fact that many women in the 21st century are still fighting those same old battles.
Marie Curie has been the subject of several films, most notably the Hollywood studio biopic Madam Curie (1943), in which she was played by Greer Garson, and Les Palmes de M. Schutz, a 1997 French film based on a play by Jean-Noël Fenwick and starring Isabelle Huppert as Marie Curie. To that number may now be added Marjane Satrapi’s Radioactive, based on the National Book Award finalist Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Cure, a Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss. It’s an odd film, jumping between conservative and unconventional approaches to its subject, spicing up basic biopic conventions with a non-chronological structure, fantasy sequences, and more flesh and temper than might be expected given the saintly reputation of its central character.
Rosamund Pike is excellent in the role of Marie Curie, doing her very best to bring the role to life while battling against a screenplay that makes her task a lot harder than it needs to be. Sam Riley does equally well as her husband Pierre, working under similar conditions, as do Anya Taylor-Joy as Irene Joliot-Curie, and a variety of able actors in supporting roles. Production values are uniformly high, including cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle, editing by Stéphane Roche, production design by Michael Carlin, and costume design by Consolata Boyle. If nothing else, Radioactive, shot in Hungary, is a beautiful film to watch.
The downfall of Radioactive is the screenplay, written by Jack Thorne, who also wrote the screenplay for the 2019 Amazon Studios film The Aeronauts. I know it’s not the modern style, but there’s something to be said for maintaining some semblance of chronology in a film focused on a person’s life, if only because it imitates the way we normally experience our own lives. Thorne’s choice to cut back and forth in time makes it difficult to maintain an interest in anyone or anything, and his decision to salt in a lot of seemingly random facts, like Pierre Curie’s dabbling in spiritualism and Marie Curie’s distrust of hospitals, further disrupt our ability to maintain an interest in the life of the principal character.
It may be that Thorne was trying to mimic the form of the graphic novel (which I haven’t read) on screen, in which case it just goes to show that what works in one medium may not work in another. Particularly jarring are the film’s leaps into the future (Marie Curie died in 1934), demonstrating some of the beneficial (lifesaving medical treatments) and the destructive (the atom bomb) enabled by her discoveries. Sometimes it seems that he meant this film to be a sort of meditation on the blessings and dangers of scientific progress, but it has too much of the conventional biopic in it to really commit to that lane. For all that, young scientists-to-be may find the story inspirational, and the necessity of overlooking the screenplay’s peculiarities to enjoy what the film does have to offer is not a requirement exclusive to this film. | Sarah Boslaugh
Radioactive is distributed digitally by Amazon Prime Video.