If there ever was the perfect match of filmmaker and source material, having Marjane Satrapi (who adapted and directed her own graphic novel about growing up in Iran, Persepolis) direct the life story of Marie Curie, Radioactive, seems like a stroke of genius. (Radioactive is itself a graphic novel by Lauren Redniss.) As one might expect, the bulk of the film walks us through the many great discoveries and eventual accolades that Curie (embodied by Rosamund Pike) and her husband Pierre Curie (Sam Riley) received after discovering new elements and radioactivity, ensuring her place in history. Little did she know (although she began to suspect later in her life) how the world at large would take her discovery and twist it into something destructive beyond words, while also using its power to help and cure all manner of illness.
Adapted by Jack Thorne (Wonder), Radioactive begins in the back half of the 19th century in Paris, where the Polish-born Marie Sklodowska was one of the only female faces and voices in science. She was repeatedly denied the funding and access she needed, and when we meet her at this age, she’s being kicked out of her lab at the college for taking up too much space. Although the film isn’t an overtly feminist exercise (Curie herself said that she was undercut more in her career by lack of funds than she ever was for being a woman, because her science was beyond reproach), you can’t help notice that every accomplishment she has is doubly layered with importance in the arenas of science and gender politics.
The highlight of the film is Pike’s performance, which makes it clear that Curie was both utterly secure and slightly uncomfortable in her own skin, all at once. She knew that her research opened doors for her that perhaps other women might not have been allowed to open, and this knowledge sometimes made her as abrasive and arrogant as her male counterparts. As a result, her opportunities for friendships and other close relationships was limited, which made her all the more appealing to Pierre, with whom she shared lab space. He clearly fell in love with her brain first, and the rest came later. As much as a rom-com featuring Marie Curie might not top your list of must-see films, that is certainly an element in Radioactive, and it provides the movie with some much-needed charm.
The process of discovering radioactivity is fascinating, and the filmmakers do an admirable job making a difficult-to-follow string of events make some degree of sense. It never fails to seem strange how free and easy everybody working on the discovery was with this glowing green material (Marie even kept of vile of it next to her bed), and yes, eventually many people pay a hefty price for handling radioactive materials with reckless abandon. But that doesn’t stop the Curies from winning a joint Nobel Prize for their work (Marie won a second for chemistry later in life). One of the things the film captures beautifully is the initial way radioactivity caught on as part of pop culture—many products were even branded as being radioactive that weren’t just because it was trendy.
In an interesting and not entirely successful choice, Satrapi intersperses Marie Curie’s story with brief moments from the future—long after her death—to show the far-reaching aspects of her discovery, both good and tragic. We get glimpses of a young boy getting chemo therapy, with his anxious father looking on; a view from inside the cockpit of the Enola Gay bomber that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima; a few moments of an atomic test in the southwestern desert, complete with an audience of tourists; and a terrifying sequence involving the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown. These moments blend into Curie’s own visions of her life as she gets older, and it’s clear that she is beginning to see the potential for her work to be dangerous as well as helpful (such as when she offers up portable x-ray machines to the battlefields of World War I to help save soldiers’ lives and limbs). They’re glimpses of what will be important, but they’re almost too on the nose as far as the messages of the movie.
There are some worthy supporting players, including Simon Russell Beale (The Death of Stalin) as Gabriel Lippmann, the head of the college; Aneurin Barnard as Paul Langevin, a lab mate of the Curies; and the very welcome presence of Anya Taylor-Joy as the 18-year-old version of the Curies’ eldest daughter, Irène, who also becomes a scientist of much note later in her life.
Radioactive is perhaps at its best when it puts the focus on Curie’s breakthroughs and the way her work moved forward both science and the struggle for gender equality all at once. It gets a bit lost when it takes the Pandora’s Box approach to its storytelling; I don’t believe there are many among us who don’t know the potentially negative impacts of radioactivity. What does push the film beyond its flaws is Pike’s tightly wound performance. With each passing year, she reveals herself to be one of the great actors working today (if you missed her searing work as real-life journalist Marie Colvin in A Private War, correct that). As strong a filmmaker as Satrapi has proven to be over the years since Persepolis, this work doesn’t quite hold up as its divergent, distractive glimpses into the earth’s notorious experiences with radioactivity prove unnecessary and ultimately break up an otherwise worthy biography.
The film is available on Amazon Prime Video.