I suppose I had at least some preconceived notions about Marie Curie before watching Marjane Satrapi’s film “Radioactive.” I am a “Big Bang Theory” junkie and prior to this movie, that was my best reference point. Marie Curie was a genius who discovered the radium that ultimately killed her, right? Well, Radioactive shows there was much more to Madame Curie, and her story.
Directed by Satrapi — who is best known for her autobiographical comic book series “Persepolis” and its film adaptation — and with a screenplay written by Jack Thorne, “Radioactive” is based on the graphic novel “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout” by Lauren Redniss. The film, which debuted recently on Amazon Prime, opens with Marie Skłodowska Curie (Rosamund Pike) collapsing in Sancellemoz Sanitarium, near death and reflecting on her life.
The film shows highlights and heartbreak from Marie’s life. Born Maria Sklodwska in 1867 in Poland, she was never expected to be educated, much less earn a doctorate, discover radium and polonium, and earn two Noble Prizes in two different scientific areas.
In “Radioactive” we see her studying in Paris. She was all about the work, the science. She wanted to make a difference, she wanted to help people and she was passionate about it. It wasn’t about the money or the fame for her. With Pike’s performance all our preconceived notions about cold, unfeeling scientists kind of fall by the wayside. Pike’s Curie is determined, obsessive and doesn’t have the time for little men with little minds. She is also funny and fun. She is also a woman in love.
We all know how this story ends, so it is important to note that “Radioactive” is very much a love story. Marie herself probably never expected to find the partner she found in Pierre Curie (Sam Riley). The two met when she was in search of a bigger lab space. She expected to return to Poland after completing her studies in Paris. Pierre proposed and offered to go to Poland with her, so she stayed and married Pierre and the rest is history. Together, they were all about the work, the science, but there was an abiding love and passion between them, too. In “Radioactive,” you see a genuine affection between the pair. Riley’s Pierre shows a man who is fully aware of how extraordinary his wife is. He lifts her up, encourages her to keep going. You see in the film just how important their partnership was, and the tragedy of the loss of it.
In “Radioactive,” Pierre Curie says to Marie Curie “You threw a stone in the water. The ripples you can’t control.” There are flash-forwards showing exactly how the discovery of radium has shaped our society, good and bad. At the end of the movie, in a dream sequence, Marie sees everything that has come from her discovery. The Curies never patented radium: They wanted to share it with the world. They could not foresee that it wouldn’t always be used with the best intentions. In the end scenes, Marie seems to make peace with that.
Some reviewers see “Radioactive” as unfocused. I disagree. I think that the film does exactly what Satrapi wanted it to do. It goes against preconceptions of women, particularly smart women.
According to production notes, Satrapi saw the character of Curie as an antidote to the stereotypes usually found on the big screen.
"Almost anything I’ve seen about any female in the world — she’s the wife of …, the mother of …, the child of …, the sister of … — they’re always related to someone," the director explained. “From what I learned about Marie Curie, she was not Pierre Curie’s muse but rather they are two brilliant spirits — for the time they are an absolutely modern couple.”
Satrapi goes on to say that how they couple worked in an era of profound discoveries.
“It was an extremely exciting time and you can see it in the way the women were received,” she said. “It was much easier for Marie Curie working when she did than for her daughter working in the 1940s and ’50s. It was a very modern time and that is what is so attractive about this couple.”
I imagine that Madame Curie, didn’t pay much heed to preconceptions and Satrapi doesn’t either. Growing up in a society that taught women they were worth half the value of a man, Iranian-born Satrapi fortunately had a family who encouraged her to be the best human possible, regardless of her gender. She portrays Curie as strong, fervent and completely unapologetic toward the men who can’t keep up with her.