Radioactive is the story of Marie Curie's scientific career and personal life with her husband Pierre. The film highlights the struggle as Marie fights for her place in the scientific community and in history. The film stars Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Simon Russell Beale, Sian Brooke, Aneurin Barnard, Katherine Parkinson, Drew Jacoby, and Anya Taylor-Joy. It is directed by Marjane Satrapi and is written by Jack Thorne. The film is streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime.
What I love about Marjane Satrapi's style is her ability to create films that are grounded, but surprise with fantastical elements. She and cinematographer Anthony Dodd Mantle create some phantasmagoric imagery worthy of the brilliance of the science involved. There are glimpses of the atomic structure and flares of radioactive energy. There's a dance of light, fabric and body that mesmerizes like flame. The visuals are stunning in many respects giving actual scientific lessons, but Jack Thorne's script evolves beyond that.
Thorne, adapting the book by Lauren Redniss, has been able to bring context to the scientific work of Mme Curie. There are scenes of hope as the Curies discuss the research done with radiation and cancer treatment mixed with the beginnings of chemotherapy in the United States decades later. As the Pierre addresses the Nobel committee he references the destructive power of Alfred Nobel's discovery as scenes of the first atomic weapon dropped on Hiroshima unfold. As Marie thinks of the power her discovery has to destroy the body if unleashed, we see scenes of the calamity at Chernobyl. These fantastic scenes make for a more contextualized biopic than we are usually an audience to. It's rare that a biopic touches legacy in more than a few title screens at the end.
It's also rare that we get a biopic about a woman from history that doesn't wallow in big "moments." While Thorne's script and Satrapi's visuals don't skimp on the hardships Marie faced because of her gender, they don't rewrite Marie's personality to make her into some noble ideal. She's stubborn, ridiculously smart and doesn't suffer fools. This portrayal is allowed to be as complicated as the countless male led biopics we're shown. Mme Curie wasn't a goddess, she was a human and a complicated one. I like that the film never shies away from that.
I also appreciate that there was no rewriting of Pierre Curie to make him an obstacle. I like that he surprises Marie with his allyship and his need to collaborate with her in all aspects of their relationship. It's a beautiful love story in the midst of the scientific breakthroughs. Their partnership was a true one even if it took some time to get started as Marie feared Pierre would be like all the other men she's encountered. It's this relationship that keeps me involved in the story and teary eyed at the end.
Much of the brilliance of the film belongs to Rosamund Pike's fantastic performance. She handles the quirks of personality and the frustration with rules so well. She's able to command attention with a look from her intense eyes. Pike's played a wonderful range of characters in her career and for this one she pulls in her humor, grace, ferocity, intelligence and intensity to create a whole person out of what was on the page. She's so good at this role you can disappear into this world without thinking of her as anyone else, but Marie Curie.
The film isn't perfect. It has some trappings of things we've seen a few hundred times before, but what it does best is providing us with a more whole picture of what this person's achievement helped to create. Radioactive is a brilliant film about a woman without the caveats that a lesser director than Marjane Satrapi would infuse. Seek this one out and maybe we can get a few more films about the brilliant women of history and their complicated, unique experiences.