If 2020 taught us one thing, it’s that you can’t argue with science. A global pandemic is immune to gas-lighting, political expediency or signing waivers; things may improve, but they can’t improve too much if you’re already dead. It’s a good time for this biopic of Marie Curie, the ground-breaking scientist whose work led to our understanding of radiation, as a treatment for cancer, for X-rays, and for the creation of the atomic bomb. All of these societal changes are depicted in brief scenes during the back-and-forth narrative structure of Marjane Satrapi’s original take on the bio-pic genre, which nimbly skips through the timeline of Curie’s life to find something compelling in her struggle.
From the get-go, Rosamund Pike has a great advantage in that she looks pretty much what you’re expect Curie to look like; the frizzy hair, the stern countenance, an air of authority. Adapting Lauren Redniss’ book, this Working Title film kicks off with Curie hitting a few glass ceilings in terms of female scientists in Paris, and her meeting with the man who will be her lab partner and also her husband, Pierre Curie (Sam Riley). After a decorous, naked romp, they set out to uncover the mysteries of radioactive substances, but his illness thwarts their plans. Although sympathetically presented, Pierre Curie is not afraid to take credit for his wife’s work, travelling to Sweden to accept the Noble (sic) Prize while she recovers from childbirth. It’s one of a number of striking incidents which create positive empathy with Marie Curie; where many biopics leave one cold, this one has a beating, healthy heart.
The technical spec is impressive, with excellent, imaginative cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle, and a strong supporting cast including Tim Woodward, Anya Taylor Joy, Simon Russell Beale and The It Crowd’s Katherine Parkinson. This is more than just a Wikipedia palimpsest of the facts; Curie’s interest in spiritualism seems random, she’s dragged along to séances and retains a healthy scepticism, but this sub-plot pays off after the death of her husband, when she returns of her own accord, seeking solace. She’s portrayed as being as unstable as the elements she discovered; her fear of hospitals is traced back to her mother’s death, but her actions during WWI show a woman who was not prepared to crumble when the chips were down.
Radioactive is a strong bio-pic which doesn’t go down the conventional route, with Satrapi offering the kind of fresh take that made Persepolis so engaging, this is the elegant, humanistic re-telling that Marie Curie deserves.