In bed at night lying next to her husband, Pierre, Marie Curie affectionately fondles a glass vial that glows in the dark with a neon green brilliance. Working together – although Marie’s research was far ahead of Pierre’s – the pair discovers two new elements – polonium and radium. While their discoveries lead to scientific advances, they are unaware of the dangers their work entails. Although Pierre dies an early death after he slips and falls under a heavy horse-drawn carriage in a Paris street, Marie dies in 1934 from aplastic anemia, attributed to her long exposure to radiation.
Maria Salomea Sklodowska, born in Poland in 1867, remains perhaps the best known and certainly one of the most admired women in science. And with campaigns encouraging young women to choose careers in STEM, a new bio-flick is long overdue. (Madame Curie, starring Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon, as Marie and Pierre, premiered in 1943 and garnered numerous Academy Award nominations.) Radioactive, directed by Marjane Satrapi, presents Marie’s accomplishments, but does not shy away from exposing her missteps, including a damaging affair with a married fellow scientist after Pierre’s death.
Rosamund Pike tackles the role with an intensity befitting a woman who is confident of her abilities and sees no reason to apologize for her ambitions. She’s aware, as so many women still are, that she must push farther and work harder to compete with men. On a Paris street, she bumps into Pierre (Sam Riley – sufficient in the role but never in danger of overshadowing Pike), and their brief flirtation hints at a future relationship. Marie may be stern, bordering on rude, when she’s in a laboratory, but she exhibits a passionate side with Pierre. Marie’s outspokenness about her sexuality – expounding loudly about the topic in a cafe earns her disapproving looks from other women – shows that she’s ahead of her time on many issues.
After Marie is denied a place in her current lab, she agrees to share Pierre’s space. When he suggests a partnership to continue her work, she sets out parameters, ensuring she will be given the credit she’s due. However, when their work is recognized with the Nobel Prize, it’s Pierre who is singled out. He refuses to accept the award unless she’s included, holding fast to his promise.
Accepting the Nobel, Pierre talks about the benefits the world will reap from their scientific discoveries. And, indeed, we owe many advances in medicine to the Curies. But Satrapi reminds us about the dark side of radiation, flashing forward to scenes that include the bombing of Hiroshima, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, and atomic tests during the1960s in Nevada, where living rooms inhabited by dummies are blown away. With cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle, Paris at the turn of the 20th century is shown in muted tones, while the more contemporary intervals are shot in bright, saturated colors. The contrast is jarring – intentionally so – but these moments take us away from Marie’s story.
Irene Joliet-Curie (played as a child by Indica Watson and as an adult by Anya Taylor-Joy), follows in her mother’s footsteps, winning a Nobel Prize, jointly with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, for their discovery of artificial radioactivity. (The pair hyphenated their names after they married.) Radioactive shows Irene bringing her mother to the World War I battlefields in France where they use x-ray machines on wounded soldiers, a process to prevent many unnecessary amputations. Irene’s life, in the laboratory, on the battlefield during World War I, and being detained at the German border during World War II, is also inspirational. Material for a future film about another woman in science?
Photo Credit: Amazon Studios