'Radioactive': Film Review | TIFF 2019

A pleasantly informative if unremarkable biopic.

Rosamund Pike plays Marie Curie in Marjane Satrapi’s feminist biopic of the scientist whose discovery of radium and polonium laid the foundation for atomic energy.

At a time when accomplished women are being reappraised and celebrated as heroines, Radioactive, Marjane Satrapi’s study of the life, work and lasting influence of Polish scientist Marie Curie, is a timely reminder of this exceptional woman's achievements. She is the only person in history to have won the Nobel prize in the fields of both chemistry and physics. But whether her discovery of radium and polonium, made along with her husband and scientific partner Pierre Curie, is ultimately a blessing for humanity or its ruin is clearly a worry, one that recurs in the screenplay by English TV writer Jack Thorne like a damned spot that cannot be removed.

The film is animated by Rosamund Pike's prickly perf as Marie, born Maria Sklodowska, whose almost comical aggressiveness toward male authority figures hides a touching self-defensiveness at being a woman in a man’s field. Shot in English with a contemporary American ring, the Amazon Studios/StudioCanal release is clearly headed for the small screen, where it will inform new generations about the role Curie played in the development of atomic power.

One might wonder how Satrapi, the Iranian-French director who adapted the film Persepolis from her own graphic novel, got attached to this project. One obvious connection lies in the origin of the screenplay, which is adapted from Lauren Redniss’ 2010 graphic novel, a finalist for the National Book Award. The female energy behind this project makes itself felt in many ways, including a pervasive educational feminism that feels overloaded at times.   

But right or wrong in her decisions, Pike’s Curie is every inch a heroine in this version of her life, which begins when she is dying in Paris in 1934, allowing events to unfold in flashback. As a young researcher in the 1890s in the French capital, she demands rather than asks the Academy's board of stuffy old men to respect the integrity of the laboratory where she is carrying out her work. Their response is to throw her out.

She proudly tries to continue her work in a cold garret with a picture-postcard view of the Eiffel Tower seen through a drafty window. Then, Pierre Curie (a smart and wise Sam Riley, tolerant awfully far ahead of his time) jostles her on the street and retrieves her fallen book with the classic pickup line: “Are you interested in microbiology?” She brushes him off but they meet again in a cabaret where Loie Fuller is dancing “the flame dance” — a fiery metaphor that reappears in the film to characterize the positive/negative power of radioactivity.

The script is fast-moving and covers a lot of ground, including the personal side: Marie and Pierre’s lightning-fast marriage and their nudist honeymoon in the country; the birth of two daughters, Eva and Irene; and Pierre’s untimely death in an accident. All of this is well-known biography, though Marie’s scandalous affair with a married man after her husband’s death adds another dimension to her formidable personality.

Pike's Marie is a charming if peculiar mother, even when she is measuring her girls’ skulls to see how their brain is developing. But in the Curie tradition, this is above all a film about work and achievement. Satrapi and Thorne break out of the traditional biopic model to some extent with flash-forwards to future atomic developments and some psychedelic visual effects that look like high school physics texts brought to life.

Marie and Pierre are both renowned but under-funded when they set up shop together in what looks like a converted stable. Their early experiments look like making filter coffee in testtubes, but they get a bit more authentic when Marie has 40 tons of uraninite ore delivered, which she grinds into powder and uses to extract radium. She offers a graceful explanation of what they’re doing to a woman dinner guest, who asks her intelligent questions.

Back in the lab, things are moving forward and the audience feels a thrill of fear at how casually the Curies and their lab technicians handle substances whose dangerous power is unknown to them. Marie’s habit of fondling a little glowing green bottle in bed is especially upsetting. Furthermore, private entrepreneurs are beginning to commercialize radium in everything from toothpaste to face cream. Little by little, people become anemic and start coughing blood. The most chilling effects are described in futuristic inserts which break the narrative flow, while they contribute basic reminders of the negative side of the atom.

The first insert is set in Cleveland in 1957, where a doctor tests a new radium gun on a young boy suffering from cancer. Later, we visit the cockpit of the Enola Gay in 1945 as the pilot obtains permission to drop his payload: history’s first atomic bomb. A street scene in Hiroshima of the unaware inhabitants, who will shortly be torn apart by the blast, follows. A nuclear test in Nevada in 1961 illustrates the potential for an atomic explosion to melt American citizens, as well. Finally, young firefighters go to their deaths in the bowels of a flaming Chernobyl.

Back in Paris, the film returns on topic. Marie struggles with the slight of being nominated for the Nobel prize only after Pierre refuses to accept it without her. Her unmotivated rage at him when he returns with their shared prize reflects her inner turmoil at being discriminated against as a woman. After his death, she goes to Stockholm to accept her second Nobel, where she is triumphantly acclaimed by a standing ovation led by the many women in the audience.

Acting in her mid-Atlantic English, Pike creates an admirable if flawed character whose graceful womanhood battles with her fears of being exploited or bypassed for her gender. Marie finally tells her daughter Irene that “being surrounded by death and radiation have brought me very little happiness.” Luckily, Irene (spunky Anya Taylor-Joy), who has inherited her mother’s self-certainties and scientific flair, is herself on her way to winning a Nobel and pays no heed to her warnings.

Production companies: Working Title Films, Shoebox FIlms
Cast: Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Anya Taylor-Joy, Aneurin Barnard, Simon Russell Beale

Director: Marjane Satrapi
Screenwriter: Jack Thorne, based on Lauren Redniss’ graphic novel
Producers: Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan, Paul Webster
Director of photography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Production designer: Michael Carlin
Editor: Stephane Roche
Music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine
Casting director: Jina Jay
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentation)
World sales: Amazon Studios (U.S.), Studiocanal (international)

103 minutes