The latest treatment on film of the Marie Curie story provides a great role for Rosamund Pike.


Sam Riley and Rosamund Pike


To build a film around one of history’s heroines may seem particularly appropriate these days but in fact the life of the Polish scientist and Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie is a subject that has often been taken up by the cinema - there was even a silent movie about her. If the most famous of them remains MGM’s vehicle for Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, 1943’s Madame Curie, the most recent, a European coproduction, was 2016’s Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge made by Marie Noëlle. Radioactive, the latest biopic about her, finds Rosamund Pike as Marie and is directed by Marjane Satrapi who found fame in 2007 with her animated film Persepolis. But, if that could suggest that this is an attempt at a serious arthouse film, it needs to be stressed that Radioactive has a screenplay by Jack Thorne and, while it is not as fanciful in its handling of history as was his recent script for The Aeronauts, there is no doubt that Radioactive has been designed as a piece of popular cinema.


As might be expected Radioactive contains material about Marie Curie’s career and also about her private life. The former aspect shows her having to fight to be taken seriously as a woman in the male-dominated world of science in the late 1890s and it then extends to her discovery of radium and polonium as well as her contribution in helping the wounded in the First World War. As for the personal life, her marriage to the French scientist Pierre Curie (Sam Riley) who also became her collaborator is a strong feature here (that is in contrast to Noëlle’s film which spent most of its time portraying events after Pierre Curie’s early death and featured strongly her subsequent scandalous association with her late husband’s married assistant Paul Langarin (Aneurin Barnard) which is given much less weight here).


The downside of Radioactive lies in the writing which is all too willing to embrace the corny side of popular cinema. In point of fact Riley is on very good form as Pierre suggesting admirably the depth of the bond between him and Marie that existed despite some surface tensions, but Thorne can’t resist incorporating later glimpses of him after his decease as a ghost-like hallucination and providing a finale at the time of Marie’s death in hospital in 1934 in which the couple are reunited in a romantic fantasy. Earlier touches include some melodramatic moments that seem exaggerated and there is an over-prominent music score. If all that is nevertheless not altogether out of keeping with what audiences have often embraced in the past, far more surprising is the inclusion of a series of flash-forwards to illustrate directly the downside as well as the upside of Marie’s discoveries - they include Hiroshima in 1945, atomic bomb tests in Nevada in 1961 and Chernobyl in 1986. The first and last of these insertions are compete in themselves and work better than one might have anticipated, but when other instances involve additional cutting back and forth between the eras it is distracting. In any case, while the device validly raises questions about the desirability or otherwise of scientific discoveries as potentially dangerous as these, underlining the issue in the middle of a popular-style biopic is hardly the most apt place for it.


But in the long run two things stand out in favour of Radioactive. First, there is the skilled way in which Satrapi keeps the film moving (it feels shorter than its 110 minutes) and secondly there is Pike. It is far from being one of her best written roles, but her performance as Marie Curie ranks with her finest work.




Cast: Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Aneurin Barnard, Simon Russell Beale, Katherine Parkinson, Sian Brooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Corey Johnson, Edward Davis, Yvette Feuer, Tim Woodward.


Dir Marjane Satrapi, Pro Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster, Ex Pro Joe Wright, Screenplay Jack Thorne, from the book, Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss, Ph Anthony Dod Mantle, Pro Des Michael Carlin, Ed Stéphane Roche, Music Evgueni Galperine and Sacha Galperine, Costumes Consolata Boyle.


StudioCanal/Amazon Studios/Working Title/Shoebox Films-StudioCanal.
110 mins. UK/Hungary. 2019. Rel: 15 June 2020 Cert. 12A.