A resolute young woman in Paris in the 1890s sets the scientific world ablaze with her revolutionary discoveries in Radioactive, a film about the life of Marie Curie, based on the 2010 graphic novel Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout, by Lauren Redniss. Director Marjane Satrapi‘s film is part earnest biopic, part arthouse film, elevated by a luminous, intense, and riveting performance by Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) as Marie Curie.
(Some spoilers below for those unfamiliar with the life of Marie Curie.)
Satrapi is perhaps best known for her powerful autobiographical memoir, Persepolis, depicting her childhood in Iran during the Islamic Revolution in graphic novel form, which she later adapted into an animated film. So it’s not surprising that she would admire Redniss’ graphic novel about Marie Curie. Still, Satrapi admitted in an interview that she was initially reluctant to take on the project. “I was like, why the hell would you make another script about Marie Curie? There are already four of them,” she told WWD. In the end, she became “obsessed” with making the film, which she views as being as much about the aftermath of Marie Curie’s discoveries as her life and science.
While Satrapi used the draft screenplay by Jack Thorne as the basis for her film, she also mined Marie’s diaries and letters for material and met with the Curies’ granddaughter, nuclear physicist Hélène Langevin-Joliot, to learn more about this singular woman. “I really tried to portray her as a human being,” Satrapi told WWD. “She’s not perfect and she doesn’t do everything right—but who does?” (The American Institute of Physics has long maintained a detailed online exhibit, “Marie Curie and The Science of Radioactivity,” for those keen to delve into the details. I also highly recommend Susan Quinn’s 1996 biography Marie Curie: A Life and, of course, Redniss’s wonderful graphic novel.)
Per the official premise: “Radioactive is the incredible, true story of Marie Skłodowska Curie and her ground-breaking scientific achievements that revolutionized medicine with her discovery of radium and polonium, ultimately changing the face of science forever. Marie was the first female to win the Nobel Prize and the first person in history to win the esteemed award twice.”
The film opens in 1934 with a 66-year-old Marie (Pike) collapsing in her lab and being whisked off to the hospital. As she is wheeled down a corridor, we get glimpses of the woman’s life, before settling on Marie as a young woman in Paris, keen to prove herself with her scientific research. From there, the story unfolds mostly chronologically. We see the prickly Marie clash with physicist Gabriel Lippman (Simon Russell Beale, Penny Dreadful)) over her frustrations with her laboratory space; his response is to evict her entirely. A chance encounter with Pierre Curie (Sam Riley, Maleficent) leads to the latter offering to share his own laboratory.
Pierre is fascinated by the science and equally entranced by the passion and temerity of the woman. He proposes a research partnership, offering her the use of a new type of electrometer he and his brother Jacques have invented, capable of measuring extremely low electrical currents—precisely what was required to detect the very faint currents in air that are evidence of uranium rays. Love blooms, and the two marry in a small civil ceremony. (Marie’s navy blue wedding dress proves equally serviceable in her laboratory work.)
After a honeymoon spent bicycling through the countryside, the lovers resume their experiments, eventually announcing the discovery of two new elements: polonium and radium. They make this momentous announcement before their academic peers, with Marie announcing, “We are here to tell you that you have fundamentally misunderstood the atom.” It was Marie who coined the term radioactivity and proposed the revolutionary hypothesis that, while most atoms are “finite and stable,” some are not, “and in their instability, they emit rays.”
The film continues to follow Marie’s life, from Pierre’s tragic death—he was run down by a horse-drawn cart while crossing the street—and her scandalous affair with married physicist (and Pierre’s former student) Paul Langevin (Aneurin Barnard, Dunkirk), to winning a second Nobel Prize (in chemistry). We see her 18-year-old daughter, Irène (Anya Taylor-Joy, Split, Glass), persuade her to help bring portable X-ray units onto French battlefields during World War I, before we come full circle to Curie’s death, with one final shot centered on a photograph of the famous 1927 Solvay Conference. Marie Curie is the only woman pictured in this meeting of the world’s most notable physicists, on hand to discuss what was then the fledgling field of quantum theory.
Most of the liberties taken with the history involve condensing timelines to streamline the narrative—pretty much de rigeur for any biopic. The Curies had already been married for six months when Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays (winning the very first Nobel Prize in physics in 1901). Henri Becquerel published his insight that uranium salts emitted rays that would fog a photographic plate in early 1896. Becquerel’s uranium rays so fascinated Marie that she made them the focus of her own research.
Much of Marie’s early life in Poland is, at best, briefly relayed in flashbacks during Radioactive, including Marie’s mother dying from tuberculosis when Marie was just 11. Meanwhile, a youthful, failed romance with the son of an affluent family with whom Marie served as governess is never mentioned at all.
Satrapi has cleverly woven in details not just of the science of that age but also its art and broader intellectual circles. Case in point: it is true that the Curies greatly admired the American modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller, who was all the rage in Paris at the time. Fuller was also a pioneer in theatrical lighting, using lights of different colors to illuminate the silk fabrics she wore during performances. Her famous “Serpentine Dance” was captured on film by the Lumière brothers in 1897, and it would inspire choreography for Taylor Swift’s Reputation tour more than a century later.
The admiration was mutual: Fuller was so captivated by the Curies’ radium experiments that she wrote to them in 1905, asking about the possibility of making a costume out of radium (she was unaware of just how limited a supply was in existence). Marie politely advised against it. Undeterred, Fuller worked fluorescent salts into a black gauze dress that she wore to perform her “Radium Dance,” creating the illusion of twinkling stars or ghostly lights surrounding her as she swirled on a darkened stage. Fuller’s striking visuals are recreated to great effect in a couple of scenes in Radioactive.
A scandalous scientist
A few moments in Radioactive ring false. For instance, it’s true that Pierre was fascinated by spiritualism and that he and Marie attended a few seances by the infamous Italian medium Eusapia Palladino, who was ultimately revealed to be a fraud. Their interest was purely scientific (Pierre’s brother Jacques was a true believer), although as the film depicts, Marie was far less intrigued than her husband. While several aspects of the seances were clearly tricks, Pierre felt there might be interesting physics phenomena at play for a couple of effects not as easily explained. At a time when the world had just discovered invisible X-rays and radioactivity, his hypothesis wasn’t unreasonable, and other notable scientists of the period shared Pierre’s interest: William Crookes, Jean Perrin, and Langevin, to name a few.
But that’s no excuse for a scene—following Pierre’s death and Langevin terminating their affair—in which a distraught Marie seeks out Palladino only to find the medium has died. (Fun fact: although Langevin returned to his wife, Marie’s granddaughter Hélène married his grandson Michel.) Marie frantically pounds on the door before collapsing to the ground, begging Palladino’s former assistant repeatedly to produce Pierre’s spirit for her. Is this an all-too-human response to losing the love of one’s life? Of course. That doesn’t mean this would have been her human response to the loss, and it’s inconsistent with Pike’s interpretation of the character.
In particular, these sequences undermine a truly sublime earlier scene in which Marie stands beside Pierre’s open casket, prior to the funeral. She’s the picture of tight control before breaking down into a despairing howl of sorrow. Satrapi lets the whole thing play out over several minutes, much of it in near-silence, letting us see the complicated emotions playing across Pike’s face as she builds to that moment of catharsis.
Another minor misstep involves a fight between Marie and Pierre. He’s just returned from giving the traditional acceptance speech in Stockholm after the couple has won the Nobel Prize. She accuses him of placing too much value on the adulation of his peers and of trivializing her contribution by not taking her with him. Marie insists she has a finer mind than his and laments that her biggest weakness is that she loves him so much.
The film isn’t perfect, but it takes admirable artistic risks rather than playing it safe.
The Curies likely had their share of arguments, and Marie was often frustrated with not receiving the professional respect she felt she deserved. She also thought Pierre didn’t get the respect he deserved. But this scene, as written, does a disservice to Pierre, who was extraordinary for a man of that era with regard to his wife. He was the one who insisted Marie be included in the award, after all, and the two of them actually did travel to Stockholm together—two years after the prize was awarded, since their teaching commitments prevented then from going sooner.
None of this detracts from Pike’s tautly nuanced performance, which brings the famous physicist to vivid life, even if the rest of the film is so tonally constrained that the occasional sparks never quite ignite into a fire. Figuring out how to convey the science visually without slipping into lecturing the audience is a challenge with scientific biopics, but Satrapi deftly threads that needle and conveys the main concepts without getting too bogged down in the details.
The film also makes good visual use of how Marie liked to carry around vials of radium and enjoyed visiting the lab at night because “the glowing tubes looked like fairy lights.” All her papers from her early research, along with laboratory books and even her cookbooks, are still kept sealed in lead boxes. Neither she nor Pierre realized the dangers of radioactivity; both suffered occasional radium burns and regular bouts of radiation sickness. Marie would eventually die of aplastic anemia, linked to that exposure; her daughter Irène died of acute leukemia from her prolonged exposure to polonium and X-rays.
Less effective are the intermittent flash forwards into the future, intended to show Marie’s scientific legacy: not just radiation therapy for cancer, but also the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Enola Gay, the nuclear tests of the 1950s, and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, for instance. Granted, all science builds on what came before, but it’s a stretch to directly tie the atomic bomb and nuclear power plant disasters to Curie’s research on radioactivity; she died four years before the splitting of the atom changed the world. That said, I loved how Satrapi used that flash-forward imagery in the final death scene, as the veils that separate past, present, and future drop in Marie’s mind, and she is “reunited” once more with Pierre.
Radioactive might not be to everyone’s taste, and it’s not perfect. But it takes admirable artistic risks rather than playing it safe. That alone makes the film well worth watching. It’s now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Listing image by YouTube/Irène