Radioactive: Marjane (Persepolis) Satrapi’s Biopic of Madame Curie, Starring Rosamund Pike

The discovery itself came from a Polish woman living in France at the turn of the century, a wife and mother who battered the elements into submission seeking to understand how they worked.

 

Rosamund Pike standing in front of a window: Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie in the movie "Radioactive." (Laurie Sparham / Amazon Studios)© Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie in “Radioactive.” (Laurie Sparham / Amazon Studios)
The life of Marie Curie, the woman who discovered radioactive, has been celebrated in books and films.
She has been a role model for scientists–especially female ones–for generations, and for good reasons.  Curie was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, and the first person and only woman to win it twice.
Her life and work was commemorated in a noble and conventional MGM biopic of 1943, starring the studio’s then reigning queen, Greer Garson, rendering another Oscar caliber performance.
And now comes a new chronicle made by the Oscar-nominated filmmaker Marjane Satrapi. Though it’s her fifth feature, Satrapi is still best known for one work, the animation Persepolis.
The scenario is adapted by Jack Thorne (“Dirty Music,” “The Aeronauts”) from Lauren Redniss acclaimed biography, “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout,” which she illustrated.
The versatile British actress Rosamund Pike plays the pioneering scientist who discovered radium and polonium with her husband, Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), thereby changing forever the worlds of science, medicine, and culture.
Her victories are also veiled with a good degree of ambiguity (and some negative connotation) since, in addition to the innovation of radiation as treatment for cancer and X-ray machines, there are also memories of dangers and disasters associated with it, such as Hiroshima in WWII, and more recently Chernobyl.
The film is fixated with that legacy, often leaping ahead to events that occurred decades after Curie’s death in 1934 to underline that, yes, radium is indeed an incredibly seductive and incredibly dangerous scientific discovery. A child receives cancer treatment; Chernobyl melts down.
The constant reminder feels a bit condescending to the audience and draws focus away from Curie herself. The filmmakers compulsively draw the connection between the Curies’ work and the destruction it eventually wreaked, cutting, for example, between Pierre’s Nobel acceptance speech and the Enola Gay dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Satrapi brings flashes of creative innovation in surreal moments of fantasy and magical realism peppered throughout. There’s even animation, the medium in which Satrapi had first found acclaim with Persepolis.  The conception of Marie and Pierre’s first child is rendered as an atom bursting.
Another particularly remarkable sequence finds Marie after Pierre’s sudden and accidental death. Images of a grief-stricken Marie are overlaid with radioactively glowing images of contemporary modern dancer Loie Fuller, who performed in  elaborate costume of billowing fabric.Strikingly shot by Anthony Dod Mantle, Danny Boyle’s regular cinematographer, energizes the otherwise staid telling of Curie’s life.Pike is adequate as the determined, almost obsessive scientist to the point of self-destruction. But despite the talent involved, and the significant subject matter, the flawed, over-expository narrative does little to shed new light on the familiar story and its undeniable heroine.