Producers: Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan and Paul Webster Director: Marjane Satrapi Screenplay: Jack Thorne Cast: Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Anya Taylor-Joy, Aneurin Barnard, Simon Russell Beale, Katherine Parkinson, Sian Brooke, Harriet Turnbull, Indica Watson, Cara Bossom, Ariella Glaser, Isabella Miles, Georgina Rich and Richard Pepple Distributor: Amazon Studios
Marie Curie and her husband and scientific partner Pierre, the discoverers of radioactivity (a neologism she coined), received plush, inspirational biographical treatment in Mervin LeRoy’s 1943 MGM movie starring Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon, and one might have expected something more daring from Marjane Satrapi’s adaptation of Lauren Redniss’ 2010 graphic novel about them. In the event, however, this new biodrama is, a few stylistic flourishes apart, in a similarly conventional mode, though it points out the negative as well as positive results of their breakthrough.
It also adds a strongly feminist slant to the narrative, while including a subject that the earlier picture studiously avoided—the scandal that enmeshed Marie when she became involved with a married man after her husband’s death. It also concludes with a segment portraying her work, alongside her daughter Irène (Anya Taylor-Joy), in developing mobile radiography units for use in field hospitals on the battlefields of World War I.
One might imagine oneself back on the MGM lot with LeRoy as Satrapi’s film begins with a cute meeting between Marie (Rosamund Pike) and Pierre (Sam Riley) on a Paris street in 1894. He bumps into her and retrieves the book she’s dropped, commenting on its scientific subject. He’s gracious and considerate, while she’s brusque and dismissive.
His attitude is explicable in light of the fact that ever since she’s arrived in France from her native Poland in 1891, her research has been stymied by the hostility of the aged faculty of the University, especially snooty Professor Lippmann (Simon Russell Beale). When she’s in danger of losing laboratory space entirely, Pierre—a paragon, it seems, of progressivism in his day (and infatuated with Marie from the start) invites her to share his team’s space, and before long the two have become close collaborators.
Their work, shown in typical montages of clanking test tubes and flasks, as well as the crushing of tons of pitchblende to provide material for their experiments and the employment of Pierre’s electrometer, culminates in the discovery of uranium radiation and two new elements, radium and polonium, along with proof that contrary to contemporary belief, atoms are not indivisible. After announcing their revolutionary findings, they are awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903.
By this time, Marie has given birth to Irène (played successively by Indica Watson, Ariella Glaser and Taylor-Joy) and is pregnant with their second child Ève (played first by Isabella Miles, then by Cara Bossom). As a result, she is unable to go to Sweden for the ceremony, but is deeply hurt that Pierre has received the award alone, considering her own absence a sexist insult. The two overcome the rough patch, however, and continue their work. Unfortunately, Pierre, already ill, it appears from radiation poisoning, is killed in a road accident in 1906.
In the aftermath of her husband’s death, Marie enters an affair with supportive Paul Langevin (Aneurin Barnard), which his wife Jeanne (Katherine Parkinson) publicizes, provoking a scandal that even threatens the ceremony at which Marie is to receive her second Nobel in 1911, this time for Chemistry. As portrayed here, however, the event has a celebratory feminist air; and a few years later, Marie overcomes her aversion to hospitals—occasioned by memories of visiting her dying mother (Georgina Rich) as a child (Harriet Turnbull), an episode shown repeatedly in flashback—to join with Irène in developing the mobile radiography units for use at the front.
Satrapi and screenwriter Jack Thorne present Curie’s biography in generally staid, straightforward terms, made visually attractive by Michael Carlin’s production design, Consolata Boyle’s costumes, Robert Wischhusen-Hayes’ set decoration, and Anthony Dad Mantle’s cinematography. Stéphane Roche’s astute editing and the score by Evgueni Galperine and Sacha Galperine add to an elegant feel.
There are, as noted, some artistic touches that break the generally conventional storytelling mode. Some visual effects and animation segments are employed to illustrate the atomic and sub-atomic findings of Curie’s research, for example. But more importantly, the film occasionally breaks with chronology to foretell the impact—good and bad—the discovery of radioactivity will have—all connected to the pious hope Pierre expresses in his Nobel speech that the benefits will outweigh the drawbacks. There are scenes of a young boy whose tumor will be treated with radiation. But these are juxtaposed with an episode in which Pierre discusses the use that the faddish concept of radiation is put in commercial products like cigarettes and toothpaste.
More importantly, there are periodic flash-forwards to such events as the testing of the atomic bomb in the Nevada desert, and to its use at Hiroshima. Another episode briefly dramatizes the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl and its effect on firefighters responding to the disaster, in which Marie herself enters into the surrealistic scene. That, and its emphasis the impact Curie’s groundbreaking accomplishments had on the recognition of what women could contribute to scientific and medical research if only their capabilities were recognized, are what set “Radioactive” apart from a simple period drama.
But so do the performances, especially that of Pike, who gives Marie a depth of feeling and nuance that makes one feel the pain she feels at not being treated in the fashion her talent deserves—and over the death of her beloved mother and husband. No one else matches her—Pierre is so perfect a gentleman that he has little room to maneuver, and both Taylor-Joy and Barnard are similarly stuck with largely one-note characters. But it’s always a joy to watch Beale, even in a fairly stock part, while Sian Brooke does a nice job as Marie’s supportive sister Bronia.
So while a generally conventional treatment of its extraordinary subject, Satrapi’s polished film serves as a solid celebration of a remarkable life.