Moviegoer: Radioactive

Every discovery has its price 

Maria Skłodowska (Rosamund Pike: The Informer) has a brilliant mind and no funding.  

Instead of being taken seriously, she’s seen as a nuisance in the science department of the University of Paris. Unable to play the coquette or charm her peers, her studies are disrespected and her equipment constantly jettisoned in favor of men’s research. 

When she meets Pierre Curie (Sam Riley: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil), she is suspicious. She’s never met a man who has taken a genuine interest in her mind and her work. Soon, the two form a partnership that will change the course of the world. Now married and using the more francophone name Marie Curie, the scientist discovers two elements: radium and polonium.  

While Marie is protective of her discoveries, carrying a vial of radium with her wherever she goes, Pierre wants to see what their discovery can become. But when she and Pierre begin to grow sick and cough blood, they wonder if there’s a downside to what they’ve uncovered.  

A movie about an incredible scientist and a discovery that has both changed and damaged the world, Radioactive is a wide sweeping drama. Graphic novelist turned director Marjane Satrapi (The Voices) experiments with time and metaphor to deliver a visually striking film. Satrapi creates lovely pieces of neon-green tinted metaphoric scenes that evoke Marie’s state of mind as well as an encroaching sense of dread.  

Satrapi also tries to contextualize the magnitude of what the Curies discovered—showing the inception of effective radiation treatments on cancer patients and the devastation wrought by the atomic bomb and Chernobyl disasters. Satrapi also critically examines the Curies’ decision to keep radium and polonium patent-free. Pierre was excited to see what other scientists would do with their elements, convincing Marie not to file for a patent. Satrapi explores the consequences of this decision, showing how radium became a trendy ingredient in everything from toothpaste to chocolate.  

At the center of the film is Pike’s unflinching portrayal of Marie. Not a feminist hero, or even likeable at times, Marie is a woman committed to science above all else. She is brash, abrasive and utterly uninterested in anything that doesn’t further her work. Her love for Pierre is tied to their love of science, and it’s in him that she finds a true kindred spirit. When she loses him, she loses herself and seemingly her purpose. It’s a testament to Pike’s prowess that she can transition from single-minded scientist to lost mourner in a believable and heartbreaking fashion. 

As Marie’s partner in science and life, Riley makes an excellent Pierre. He accepts Marie’s peculiarities with aplomb, never questioning her brilliance or attempting to take credit for her mind. It’s easy to understand how Marie’s brilliance flourished under such support. 

Though the acting is strong and the subject matter compelling, Radioactive falters in its script. The film falls into most common biographical traps and the story never has any tension in it. Satrapi also fails to mine the persecution Curie faced later in life to its full potential. Though Curie’s personality means she rarely reacted to the press and criticism, it would have been interesting to see more of how her daughters dealt with the pressure placed upon them. 

Satrapi also fails to fully explore Curie’s relationships with her daughters, one of whom also won a Nobel Prize in chemistry. The director is more interested in looking at Curie’s impact on history and attempting to weigh the good and the bad that came from her discovery. By leaving out the personal elements that could inform the characters, the movie becomes detached. It feels like you’re reading a textbook instead of learning about an extraordinary woman.  

Still, Radioactive is a visually beautiful movie with a strong leading performance from Pike. If you’re hoping to inspire your kids to take up science, this could be the movie to do it. Just don’t let them sleep with a vial of radium in their bed.  

Radioactive is available on Amazon Prime starting July 24.  

Fair Biopic * PG-13 * 109 mins.