Who coined the term “radioactivity”? Who was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize? Who was the first person to win two Nobel Prizes? What husband and wife duo shared a Nobel Prize in chemistry? Who are the first mother and daughter Nobel Laureates? The answers have one common denominator: Marie Curie.
We all know her name from as far back as grade school. But unless you’re into STEM studies, chances are your knowledge of her life and accomplishments could fit on the back of a Trivial Pursuit card or Jeopardy clue. Radioactive seeks to remedy that, by fleshing out the story of Marie Sklodowska Curie (Rosamund Pike, A Private War, Gone Girl) and her groundbreaking research and discoveries – on her own, and with others, most notably, her husband Pierre (Sam Riley, Control, Maleficent). They shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in radiation (studying “uranium rays”); in 1911, she was awarded the Nobel Prize “for her contribution to the advancement of chemistry” with her (and Pierre’s) discovery of the radioactive elements radium and polonium (named, by the way, after her native Poland).
The problem with Radioactive is that it’s not a particularly engaging or entertaining biopic in its totality. The narrative is constructed in such a way that it dips into moments in time – from the 1870s to the 1980s – to showcase pivotal moments in Marie’s life, as well as the practical applications of her work. Applications that would prove both beneficial and consequential (mobile X-ray units; cancer therapies; nuclear energy, radiation poisoning, the Atomic bomb, Chernobyl…). I appreciate what director Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and screenwriter Jack Thorne (Wonder) were going for in adapting the graphic novel “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout” (by Lauren Redniss) to the big screen. But the futuristic leaps muddled the chronology and distracted from the strongest thing the film has going for it… Pike’s performance. And Riley’s too – for as long as he’s in the picture. Which, sadly, isn’t long enough.
Perhaps I got too invested in the love story. The relationship between Marie and Pierre and their collaboration in life and lab was sweet and inspiring, especially for the time. Pierre was quite “woke” for an 1890s guy. Unfortunately, he meets with an untimely demise about midway through the movie. The second half then advances through Marie’s struggles and triumphs – as she raises two daughters Eve and Irène (who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935), gets embroiled in scandal by having an affair with a married colleague, delivers X-ray equipment to the front lines during WWI, and succumbs to illness likely brought on by her frequent exposure to radiation.
Radioactive takes the science – and the pioneering spirit of the smart, strong-willed and unapologetic Marie Curie – very seriously. Under normal circumstances – i.e., in pre-pandemic times – I may have dismissed Radioactive as a so-so flick with some very good performances. But I’m feeling particularly grateful to scientists these days. So any film that might encourage or inspire current and future trailblazers in science and medicine gets an extra dose of respect.
Radioactive is available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video starting July 24th. Rated PG-13.