“Radioactive” is no longer just the name of a terrible song; it is also the title of an interesting biopic about Marie Curie, a totally fascinating woman about whom I now know a lot, and I plan on working tidbits about her into conversation for months. I am now an expert on this flinty, accomplished scientist, and I have the usually glamorous actress Rosamund Pike to thank for it.
Pike attempts a transformation à la Nicole Kidman in “The Hours” for this film, and it works. Instead of a fake nose, Pike, who starred in “Gone Girl,” gets to wear old-age makeup and a frizzy wig to convince us she is a serious scientist and not a gorgeous actress. She succeeds in portraying a brilliant woman whose life was shaped by personal loss and whose dedication, combined with natural intellect, led her to scientific discoveries that changed history and the world.
Curie left behind a childhood in Poland marred by the death of her mother to move to Paris and study science at the Sorbonne. If she ever tried to get what she wanted by a soft “feminine” approach, it is certainly not portrayed here. She is self-confident and defiant, and does not suffer the many fools who object to her participation in intellectual life because she is a woman. She eventually becomes the first woman to win the Nobel Prize.
“Radioactive” gets its feminist bonafids from director Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian graphic novelist best known for her memoir, “Persepolis,” which she also adapted into an Academy Award-nominated animated film. Finely tuned to the struggle of a brilliant woman in a man’s world, the director shows us Curie’s problems without sentimentality or soapboxing. Curie was, simply and factually, stymied by her gender, and this film movingly portrays her struggles and accomplishments.
It is also romantic. Curie shared her life, her lab and her Nobel Prize with her husband, fellow scientist Pierre Curie, who recognized her genius and hitched his wagon to her ideas on isolating radioactive isotopes, offering her space in his lab when the Sorbonne kicked her out. Through physically gruelling labor and meticulous research, the pair discovered two new elements, radium and polonium, coined the term radioactivity, and changed the conceptual understanding of the atom itself.
The Curies’ romantic and intellectual partnership is beautifully portrayed. Sam Riley (“On the Road,” “Maleficent”) treats his wife as an equal, which in itself is noteworthy in the 1870s, while being aware of both her intellectual superiority and his own worth. It is worth watching them argue and work together, and you get a true appreciation for their relationship. When he is killed in an accident, you feel the pain and loss of his sudden death and its impact on Marie. Her eventual affair with another scientist leads to a scandal from which her reputation never fully recovers.
A fascinating and well-executed aspect of “Radioactive” is a series of scenes in the future that show the eventual applications of the Curies’ work, from life-saving cancer treatments to catastrophes such as Chernobyl and history-altering events like dropping atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Such a weighty historical account is bound to feel educational at some points, but Rosamund Pike kept her character compelling, even as the viewers were forced to learn about one of history’s most accomplished women.
Her relationship with her husband and children was complicated; she was not a traditionally maternal, nurturing figure, but instead a towering, disciplined genius. While their mother may not have baked cupcakes for any school bake sales, the Curie daughters managed to grow up and make significant accomplishments of their own, including another Nobel Prize. In some ways “Radioactive” is a drama about an extraordinary family and the lengths and sacrifices necessary to achieve at this level, contrasted with their relatable and universal need for love. Marie Curie was just another working mom trying to have it all, which in this case includes two Nobel Prizes and radiation poisoning.
Satrapi’s formidable “Radioactive” might fall prey to the occasional lulls and expository overload inherent in the biopic form, but it also shines as a noteworthy story on a personal level. I related to Pike’s Marie Curie, even as her portrayal made it clear how low relatability and likeability rated on Curie’s extensive list of priorities. There are lots of different kinds of women, wives and mothers, and “Radioactive” gives the viewer a fascinating portrait of a truly singular person.
“Radioactive” is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime.
New This Week:
“Made in Italy”: A father and his estranged son are forced back together to deal with the estate of his late wife in this drama from IFC Films. Liam Neeson’s real son co-stars opposite him in the role, which is especially meaningful considering the tragic death of Neeson’s real wife, Natasha Richardson, in 2009. Video on Demand.
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