There can never be enough movies made about remarkable people with incredible accomplishments. Marie Curie was certainly a remarkable woman and her accomplishments were such scientific breakthroughs that we are still using them today. Director Marjane Satrapi’s (Oscar-nominated for Persepolis, 2007) film Radioactive is based on the 2010 book Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss, and the screenplay was adapted by Jack Thorne (The Aeronauts, 2019).
The film opens in 1934 Paris, and we see an enfeebled Marie Curie (Rosamund Pike) collapse and get rushed to a hospital – a sequence used by director Satrapi as a framing device. The film quickly flashes back to 1893 when a headstrong and brilliant twenty-something Marie Salomea Sklodowska gets kicked out of her laboratory for being…well…a bit too headstrong for the times. Soon, she meets an equally headstrong and brilliant scientist named Pierre Curie (Sam Riley). Pierre recognizes the potential if they combine forces, while Marie initially demands her independence, having never found another scientist worthy of the efforts required for collaboration.
The initial flirtations between brainy scientists is as clumsy and awkward as one might expect. In general, the film struggles with how to best juggle portrayals of Curie’s personal life with those of her professional life. It also fails to adequately portray the challenges she faced as a brilliant woman in an era when male scientists didn’t much appreciate a woman scientist telling them they have “misunderstood the atom,” as she and her husband announce the discovery of not one, but two new elements: radium and polonium. Romance and science and equality are a lot for one film to tackle, and this one flounders a bit.
As the film and science progress, director Satrapi intersperses flash-forward vignettes to show how Curie’s discovery of radioactivity is used in the future for both good and not so good. These dropped-in segments include cancer treatment for a little boy in 1957, the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, the atomic bomb test in 1961 Nevada, and of course, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The segments aren’t always a smooth transition from Curie’s story, but they make the point of how scientists don’t always have control over how their discoveries are applied. There is even a scene where Pierre shows Marie some comical uses entrepreneurs found of trying to capitalize on their discovery, and how their work might factor into everyday life.
As a biography or profile of Marie Curie’s life and accomplishments, the film hits the high notes, though we do wish it dug a bit deeper. The gender prejudices of the times are somewhat underplayed, and even Marie herself claims lack of funds and the fact that she wasn’t a natural-born Parisian held her back more than the roadblocks she faced as a female scientist. It would seem reasonable that those issues were likely tied together and should not be separated. She lashes out at Pierre regarding the Nobel committee initially keeping her name off the submission, but of course this anger is misplaced, as Pierre demanded she be included.
The historical aspect of her winning two Nobel Prizes is not treated as the astonishing accomplishment it is, but time is spent on a personal scandal that occurred after Pierre’s death. We do see Marie sleeping with a sample of her radioactive uranium, and watch her slow physical deterioration, including an incessant cough and damaged skin. Late in the film, Anya Taylor-Joy plays her daughter Irene, and we see the two of them head onto the battlefield to provide mobile X-ray devices for injured soldiers. The Curie family tree is filled with renowned scientists (Irene and her husband Frederick jointly won the Nobel Prize in 1935 for artificial radioactivity), and some of these discoveries literally changed the world – including cancer treatments. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect any movie to capture the historical importance of Marie Curie, but we are somehow left feeling she deserved better.
Radioactive is available on Amazon Prime.