Regularly when one watches a biopic, there is a written postscript which talks about what happens to the character(s) and/or their work (good or bad). “Radioactive,” a movie about Marie Curie, doesn’t eschew a few closing notes, but, wonderfully, incorporates the results of Curie’s work into the narrative proper. The movie, more than once, cuts forwards to events years after her death as her progress on understanding radiation is used for purposes both good and bad.
Directed by Marjane Satrapi and with a screenplay by Jack Thorne (based on the graphic novel by Lauren Redniss), this film argues that without Madame Curie there would be no radiation therapy for cancer; the Enola Gay wouldn’t drop a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima; the Chernobyl disaster wouldn’t take place. In fact, it may lean more towards the negative outgrowths of Curie’s life pursuits than the positive. It isn’t that the story fails to hold her up as a hero, nor that it places the blame for the negatives on her, just that it is unequivocal in its pointing out the horrors borne from her work.
Played by Rosamund Pike, the Marie Curie we meet in “Radioactive” projects an air of certainty – she knows she is the smartest person around, she knows what she needs to succeed, and she simply does not care one whit what anyone (or society as a whole) may think of her. It is a blessing and a curse as it allows her to pursue great advancements and deal with a world that doesn’t always like her, but also losing out in other areas for her inability to see beyond her immediate needs.
It is a tremendous portrayal, with Pike giving us not just a warts-and-all picture, but something even more well-rounded. We see Curie at her strongest and her weakest, winning multiple Nobel Prizes, discovering wonderful things, helping the world, and hurting those around her. She is one of the atoms she discovers, shooting off energy in various directions and causing things to happen around her, both good and bad.
It is heartbreaking to watch as Madame Curie and her husband, Pierre (Sam Riley), do their work and discover radium and polonium. We watch as Pierre grows ill and wonder whether it is because of the work or whether it would have happened even if he had not been exposed to harmful materials. We see the telltale glow of radiation and know just how dangerous it is, but Madame Curie holds a glowing vial close to her for years on end in the film. As viewers we have no control over the outcome, but watching her grip a substance that might kill her is, well… gripping.
Arriving late in the movie, but providing a welcome addition to the overall dynamic is Anya Taylor-Joy as the adult, Irene Curie, Madame Curie’s eldest daughter. We see Irene during her early, younger, years as well, but it is when she becomes an adult and proves in her strong-willed nature to be her mother’s daughter, that the character flourishes. Taylor-Joy’s Irene pulls her mother outside her comfort zone, forcing the elder Curie to put her skills to use helping soldiers during the First World War. Although Madame Curie may not be able to know what her work will bring in future decades, she learns to see it in her daughter and it is touching.
Although it might be easy to dismiss “Radioactive” as simply another biopic in a world that already has so many, that would be a mistake. Marie Curie helped usher in the technology of the 20th Century. She changed our understanding of matter and along with that, things like medicine and war. What the film offers is a very human portrayal of this woman and everything she accomplished. It is amazing to see her strength carry her through where so many may have faltered, and to see her weakness at the losses she suffers. Pike, Riley, Taylor-Joy, and Aneurin Barnard (who plays Paul Langevin, a close friend of the Curies) provide us with an intimate look at a single life and the myriad of world-changing things that life made possible. It is a biopic that, like its subject, is unique in its approach and better for it.
photo credit: Amazon Studios