Click here for the flashback interview with Marjane Satrapi for CHICKEN WITH PLUMS.
As Marie Curie (Rosamund Pike) observes about her world-changing discovery, radium, it doesn’t behave the way it should. Neither does Mme. Curie, nor the film, RADIOACTIVE, that tells much more than merely her remarkable life story.
By starting at the end, as Marie collapses into semi-consciousness at her laboratory in 1934, the story unfolds as a reverie rather than strict biography, allowing for a perfectly reasonable juxtaposition between Pierre Curie’s (Sam Riley) acceptance speech in 1903 for the Nobel prize the couple shared, and the flight of the Enola Gay on its way to Hiroshima. And as Pierre tells Marie that radium has been shown to shrink tumors and an anguished father is given good news in a mid-century hospital about his cancer-stricken son. There is only foreboding, though, as Pierre shows Marie the gray patch of skin caused by his handling of the element that they discovered. Is it an element of magical realism, or a piercing of the time-space continuum as Marie hovers between life and death?
There is certainly a sense of magic generated by director Marjane Satrapi (PERSEPOLIS, CHICKEN WITH PLUMS) as she shows Marie entranced by the luminous green of radium, a sample of which she caries around with her in a vial. It also captures the sense of wonder and possibilities with which the end of the 19th-century were rife in science, art, and metaphysics, that last becoming an obsession with Pierre, to the bemusement of his wife, who is aghast that radium has become part of a medium’s show.
Less magical are the obstacles Marie encounters as woman pursuing a career in science. The condescension of the French Academy taken as a given, but shown with a staggeringly poisonous politesse that refuses Marie even the courtesy of approaching her as an adult, much less a peer.
Pike, like Marie, refuses to indulge in the expected. She is fiercely driven, uncompromising and passionate. Skittish when first meeting Pierre (who woos her by praising a paper she has written about the magnetic properties of steel), barely irritated when her sexual freedom causes a scandal, and all but smacking her lips with childlike glee at how she is going to prove the establishment, and their paradigms, wrong. Her choices are impeccable, a raised eyebrow, a forthright stare, the matter-of-fact delivery of a statement of fact or the despair of a choked sob, she presents a woman of intellect and humor who can be considered complicated only because of her time, place, and gender. In that spirit, that Curies are one of the great love stories in history plays a secondary, if vital, part of the story as a whole.
RADIOACTIVE tells a story of scientific curiosity in a world where personality skews the perception of the work itself, and politics are never far from the equation. It lays bare not just the injustice of that, but also its stupidity while taking a more compassionate view of the innocence of even the finest minds when prediction how humankind will use their contributions. Along the way, we learn exactly why radium is so unexpected, how back-breakingly difficult it was to distill it from Bohemian ore, and the uses for a quadrant electrometer. And are swept up by the sheer delight of discovery.