It is hard to believe that a modern major motion picture has never been made about the fascinating, celebrated Marie Skłodowska Curie. Her discoveries of radium and polonium and her groundbreaking experiments in physics won her not one, but two Nobel prizes (the first with husband Pierre, the second one alone) in a time where a woman had never won before (and she is still the only woman to win two). Plus, it is well-known that her exposure to radiation in her research also contributed directly to her death of aplastic anemia. She was a fascinating woman, to be sure, so I was excited to see Radioactive, a dramatization of her life.
Welllll… I suppose I’ll still be waiting for the definitive version. There is a passion and creativity behind this film, but it seems kind of ramshackle, both earnestly straightforward and at times strangely experimental. The straightforward biopic part introduces us to Marie Skłodowska (Rosamund Pike), a Polish immigrant and scientist in 1890s Paris. Being a hard-headed (read: unmarried) academic woman in what seems to be an all-male field doesn’t make her many friends, as she butts heads and loses her laboratory. That is until she meets one Pierre Curie (Sam Riley) and amiable man who genuinely admires and respects her intellect. First, they are partners in the lab, then partners in marriage. They push each other’s passions for physics and chemistry, with groundbreaking results in the discoveries of radium and polonium.
As if acknowledging that the biopic portion of the film is a bit perfunctory, director Marjane Satrapi interrupts the proceedings several times with time jumps to future developments featuring (or abusing) the Curies’ discoveries. There is a dramatization of the accident at Chernobyl in 1986. There’s the Enola Gay dropping an atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945 in World War II. There’s a child receiving radiation treatment for cancer in the 1950s. These moments are long enough to fully distract from the main narrative–long enough that the jump back to the sepia-toned world of Marie is rather jarring. It is almost like throwing a big neon arrow into the film to remind you of the good and bad ways radiation has entered culture (for those not paying attention, like, at all).
Rosamund Pike, as always, is very good. She easily conveys Marie’s intelligence and her brittle, impatient shell. It feels like her Marie Curie has more stories to tell, if there was more time (or a better way) to tell them. Though the film starts when Marie is already in Paris, the story seems obligated to not skip anything after that, making scenes more perfunctory rather than fleshed out (for instance, her actions in World War I as a battlefield medic were fascinating, if barely touched upon). Perhaps we are getting spoiled with made-for-streaming shows that have the luxury of extra time to fully flesh out a narrative. In the case of Radioactive, I felt like I needed to fill in more of the story with a Google search after the credits rolled.