She’s one of the most influential, nay legendary, women in the history of science, but Marie Curie has made surprisingly few appearances on the big screen. A couple of documentaries and a TV movie, certainly, but perhaps her best known biopic – and a very Hollywood version – dates back to the mid-1940s. Maybe part of the problem is that the discovery of radium involved stirring massive vats of pitchblende to extract uranium. Cinematic it ain’t. But there is a fascinating story to be told. The trouble with Radioactive is that director Marjane Satrapi gives the distinct impression of being uncertain where the real story lies.
It starts off as what looks like a conventional biopic, with the headstrong Marie (Rosamund Pike) having her scientific work at the university opposed at every turn. She and eventual husband Pierre Curie (Sam Riley) meet, fall in love and start working on what turns out to be the discovery of radiation. It settles into a steady rhythm and, as biopics go, it’s interesting enough, if a little sterile, helped by a committed performance from Pike. Yet half way through, it lurches into different territory, concentrating on the element itself and its place in world history. From then on, these sequences alternate with the continuing story of Madame Curie’s life – Pierre’s death, the public reaction to her personal life, her second Nobel Prize and her promotion of X-ray machines in the First World War, which saved thousands of lives.
The mixed blessings of her discovery certainly deserve to be there, but they equally deserve to be included as an integral part, not dropped in so clumsily that they feel like an afterthought. The abrupt jumps in time, location and storyline sit awkwardly with the rest of the film, giving the impression that Satrapi isn’t clear in her own mind whether she’s telling Madame Curie’s story or that of the radium she treasured so much that she slept with a bottle of it her hand every night. It’s possible that part of the problem is down to the film being based on a graphic novel but ultimately the result is a muddle of a movie, which is sad given this is a story that’s well overdue for a re-visit.
On the plus side, Satrapi gives the film a strong feminist slant, starting with the depiction of the opposition faced by the determined Marie as she tries to make her way in the university. Her prime adversary is always Professor Lippmann (Simon Russell Beale), crusty, bound by conventions of the day but reluctantly having to admit – although never in so many words – that he also admires her and her obvious prodigious talent. Later, there’s the issue of whether her name can appear on the citation for the first Nobel Prize, which she shares with Pierre, and finally the social conventions when she has an affair after her husband’s death – with his best friend, who also happens to be married. It seems like the whole of Paris turns against her, with students dropping out of her classes. Not that any of it stands in her way.
Radioactive isn’t a conventional bio-pic but in its attempt to do something different with the genre, it falls down the hole in the middle and is neither one thing nor the other. We’re all familiar with Rosamund Pike’s powers as a leading lady and, as ever, she commands the screen with a resolute performance, but it’s not enough to give the film the sense of direction and purpose that it needs. The intentions are strong, but the result is much weaker.
History, Science, Biopic | Cert: 12A | StudioCanal | UK, 20 March 2020 | Dir. Marjane Satrapi | Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Anya Taylor Joy, Simon Russell Beale.