Biographical films aren’t as easy to pull off as it may seem. There are plenty of conventional biopic trappings and many movies fall victim to them. But I appreciate the ones that open my eyes in meaningful ways to people I’m not familiar with. Shamefully Marie Sklodowska-Curie is one such person and the new film “Radioactive” from Amazon Studios offers a good yet flawed look into her fascinating life.
Madame Curie made groundbreaking discoveries in the world of science while paving the way for other women ￼in a male-dominated field.￼￼ Among her many notable accomplishments: She discovered two new elements, discovered and even ￼coined the term “radioactivity”, and championed the use of X-rays during World War I which saved countless lives. She also became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person (man or woman) to win it twice, and the first female professor at the University of Paris.
“Radioactive” from director Marjane Satrapi works hard to avoid hitting the routine biopic beats with varying degrees of success. It’s most notable attempts come in its frequent use of flashbacks and (much more prominently) flash-forwards. They’re ambitious choices that yank us out of her personal drama to show the reverberation of her discoveries through the decades that follow. They are mostly well crafted but jarring interludes that leaves the impression of a movie torn between admiration and scorn.
The sturdy, unshakable, and always convincing Rosamund Pike plays Madame Curie and as usual she seems altogether comfortable in her character’s skin. In 1893 Paris, the Polish-born physicist and chemist finds herself booted from her laboratory for her big ideas and willingness to buck the stuffy male authority. She applies for other labs but is turned down by each. Then she (quite literally) bumps into Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), a fellow pariah among the Paris science elites. Pierre offers Marie a spot at his small but suitable laboratory. The socially awkward and boldly independent Marie initially turns him down, but soon after she accepts his offer. The two develop an impassioned, life-changing partnership that extends to both science and marriage.
From their Satrapi zips through chunks of Marie’s story, stopping briefly for key events such as the couple’s discovery of the elements radium and polonium along with their theory of radioactivity. “Well, I guess everything changes now, doesn’t it?” a character asks. Of course we know things do indeed change and the film stresses that many of those changes haven’t been for the better. Flash-forwards to the atomic bomb dropping on Hiroshima, the Chernobyl disaster, the nuclear testing in Nevada during the early sixties (you even get to watch a baby mannequin burn, melt, and get swallowed up by the ground just to stress the point). A vignette on cancer treatment is the lone positive mentioned although even it comes with its own harmful caveat.
I like the film’s willingness to wrestle with the pros and cons of Marie’s discoveries, even if it pulls away from the movie’s biggest strength – Rosamund Pike. She carries the load with an undeniable bravura and commitment to detail that captures Madame Curie both inside and out. She’s especially good when the story moves away from beakers, flasks, and test tubes and into a more personal space. Pike really brings out the humanity, showing off Marie’s drive and grit but also her insecurities and vulnerabilities. This is most vividly seen through Marie’s devoted marriage to Pierre, a devastating tragedy, and an ill-advised affair leading to her being ravaged by the headhunting press.
Some of my favorite scenes come in the last act with Marie and her now grown daughter Irene (Ana Taylor-Joy) on a World War I battlefield bringing mobile X-ray machines to field hospitals. It’s such a fitting place for someone who has battled both as a woman and a scientist. But on that battlefield it wasn’t for notoriety or advancement. It was to save the lives and livelihoods of young soldiers. Those scenes speak volumes about Madame Curie. The movie isn’t always as clear spoken. Some of the early science talk ￼￼is painfully on-the-nose and the flash-forwards are audacious but a bit too invasive. Still, “Radioactive” did what I want biopics to do, and with a performer like Rosamund Pike doing this level of work, it’s hard not to be impressed.￼ “Radioactive” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS