‘Radioactive’ Imaginatively Celebrates the Life and Legacy of Renowned Scientist Marie Curie
“Radioactive” is not content with just telling us the fascinating true story of a great scientist. The thoughtfully fictionalized biopic takes its time to also leap ahead in history, showing us how Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie’s work impacted the world. This is the latest visual invention from director Marjane Satrapi, who combines luminous visuals with intellectual insights to frame the life of Marie Curie, who discovered radioactivity. Rosamund Pike plays the focused, almost icy genius. Her husband, fellow scientist Pierre Curie, is played by Sam Riley. “I knew very little about Curie. I realized the more I researched the less I knew. The school curriculum I knew as a child had very little about Marie and Pierre Curie,” admitted Riley when sharing about making “Radioactive” with Entertainment Voice.
Satrapi, known the world over for her graphic novels about life as an Iranian expatriate, has always used her work to inform the reader or viewer, as well as entertain. Her most famous work in book and film, “Persepolis,” is both a family history and a journey through the history of modern Iran, including the fallout of its 1979 revolution. “Radioactive” focuses on the Curies while touching on themes of science, 19th century gender hierarchies, the difficulty of keen minds getting married, while adding segments on radiation casting a long shadow on human history. She was born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Poland before moving to France. We meet her in the early 1900s at the Sorbonne, where she meets Pierre. They begin working together on the project that will result in the discovery of radioactivity. A romance linked through mutual brilliance soon blossoms. But per the gender biases of the period, it is Pierre who will be offered teaching positions. When the couple wins the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, Pierre is the one invited to attend the ceremony. Marie, consumed by the passion for her work, cares little for riches. The Curies don’t even take out a patent on their discovery. But it does sting her that the patriarchal system refuses to at least acknowledge her contributions. There is another, stealthier, danger lurking. Radioactivity begins taking a toll on the very physical beings of Marie and Pierre.
“I first met Marjane I think in 2008. She had been on the same Cannes jury with my wife. My wife loved her, I loved her. She’s really fascinating, funny. She could be on the periodic table herself (laughs). She’s quite the force of nature. I then heard about this project years later. Rosamund was in it, so I obviously wanted to work with her. I was invited to do a ‘chemistry test’ with Rosamund. I thought, ‘wow, this is very thorough.’ Chemistry was never one of my strongest suits in school. Then I learned it’s a movie term to decide whether we have onscreen chemistry. By then I had already bought ‘Chemistry for Dummies’ from Amazon. We did the test in London and it obviously went ok.” The romance of “Radioactive” is unique in terms of movie couples. Marie and Pierre are attracted to each other through a special kind of respect. Each knows the other is a formidable scientific mind. Even the way Pierre proposes sounds more like a proposal to collaborate. Satrapi and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) still light the moment with a soft, romantic atmosphere.
What the film lacks in fuzzy romance Satrapi and Dod Mantle make for with lush inventiveness. 1900s Paris is bathed here in subdued greens evoking radioactivity, dancers glow onstage, Marie sleeps with a glowing test tube of isotopes next to the bed. “Marjane is a wonderful artist in her own right. She’s a painter as well. I loved ‘Persepolis.’ It was a no brainer to do this,” said Riley. “Dod Mantle, the director of photography, has this incredible visual history of working with directors like Lars Von Trier. He also shot ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ Sometimes when you make biopics that are period set they can be very stage-looking. It can be dull. But the colors they were using, the positions of the camera, they all felt different and very exciting.”
Curie and Pierre never come across as passionless, however. Satrapi makes it very clear that Marie Curie was a brilliant mind most at home in her laboratory. Even in later years her daughter seems to lament how her mother quite literally sacrificed her life to the work. Riley, who has played icons before like Joy Division frontman Ian Curits in “Control,” as well as Beat icon Jack Kerouac in “On the Road,” hopes audiences see beyond the stale image sometimes given to historical figures. “These people were not dull. That’s something else Marjane was very keen about. There’s this idea that these scientists are just some ‘nerds’ with no social life or whatever. This was a passionate couple. He was a brilliant physicist and she was a brilliant chemist. They were passionate about their work but they were also passionate about one another. It was an incredibly impressive marriage, not only of ideas, but of love, of care, of understanding, and mutual respect. These are very admirable qualities and very modern. He was rather a man of the future, I would say. There are a lot of women out there who might say their husbands today have got a long way to go when compared to Pierre (laughs).”
As Satrapi chronicles Marie and Pierre’s journey of science and achievement, she occasionally shifts ahead a few decades to show the aftershocks of their work. A father will learn his son will have his cancer treated with chemotherapy, for example. Even more striking, Satrapi cuts to the Enola Gay as it drops the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. These moments are intercut with sequences such as Pierre receiving the Nobel, or Marie helping set-up X-ray technology in the fields of World War I. Satrapi’s dreamlike visual flare is most present in these moments. A tracking shot of a mushroom cloud reflected on the visors of atomic spectators is both lush and hellish.
For Riley these moments capture how the story of “Radioactive” is not a dust-collecting bit of history, it is urgently relevant. “On the simplest basis I hope young viewers see that science is important. You also shouldn’t be held back by whatever gender you identify as. But we’re also living currently in a regressive period of time, I would say. The time where this movie takes place was a time of marvels. Flight and electricity were coming in. Now we have to depend on scientists but they’re being discredited. I think you know what I’m saying. We’re living in a time when a president of a country can ask a female scientist, in front of a television crew, if she’s ever thought of drinking detergent. We have a long way to go in terms of respect towards scientists. We need them. We’re relying on them as a species to get through this and the next crisis. I’m not afraid of people knowing more than me. Thank God some people do.”
“Radioactive” begins streaming July 24 on Amazon Prime Video.