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Radioactive (A PopEntertainment.com Movie Review)

Radioactive

RADIOACTIVE (2019)

Starring Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Anya Taylor-Joy, Aneurin Barnard, Simon Russell Beale, Katherine Parkinson, Tim Woodward, Jonathan Aris, Mirjam Novak, Corey Johnson, Demetri Goritsas, Michael Gould, Sian Brooke, Harriet Turnbull, Indica Watson, Cara Bossom, Ariella Glaser, Isabella Miles, Georgina Rich, Drew Jacoby and Richard Pepple.

Screenplay by Jack Thorne.

Directed by Marjane Satrapi.

Distributed by Amazon Studios. 113 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Eighty some years after her death, most of us non-scientists know the name Madame Marie Curie, and vaguely know she was responsible for some groundbreaking scientific breakthroughs. However, most of us laymen could not exactly name what they were. And we certainly knew nothing about her sex life and personal and professional dramas. (Though it is not hard to imagine that being a woman scientist at the beginning of the 20th century would be a difficult lifestyle.)

Curie’s scientific discoveries were indeed immense. She and her fellow scientist husband Pierre literally discovered radioactivity – and honestly, it was her idea, one which he helped to figure out and bring to fruition – and one that led to a Nobel Prize. (To demonstrate the difficulty of being a woman scientist at the time, the Nobel committee only wanted to give the prize to Pierre, but acquiesced when he insisted he would not accept it if his wife was not given equal credit.)

Intriguing director Marjane Satrapi (Persopolis, Chicken with Plums) has decided all these years later to give Madame Curie full credit – good and bad – for her life and her discoveries. As someone who doesn’t know a test tube from a Bunsen burner (okay, I do, but I am just using that as an extreme example of how little I know about science), I’m not going to lie, a lot of the mechanizations and politics of science went a bit over my head. And, fair or not, finding out about the messy personal life of Curie feels a bit like surmising on the sex life of your great grandmother.

Yet, Radioactive is an intriguing look at the woman and her work. I certainly feel I know more about Marie Curie than I did going in.

The first smart thing which Satrapi did was hiring Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, A Private War, Jack Reacher, The World’s End) to embody Curie. Pike has a history of almost never giving an uninteresting performance and that continues here as she carries the film on her back through most of the running time. Curie is a tricky character – quiet, brilliant, sometimes prickly, sometimes brittle, headstrong, and often willfully antisocial.

In the hands of a wrong actress it could be hard to warm up to Curie as a character. However, Pike keeps her likable even when she is doing unlikable things. Also, the actress is not afraid to delve into the scientist’s neuroses and weaknesses – for a strong independent woman she was often surprisingly reliant on her husband – however, this just gives us a deeper understanding and appreciation of a complex woman.

Husband Pierre is also very well played by Sam Riley, who played doomed rocker Ian Curtis in Control. Like his wife, Pierre was complicated. He was more able to play the political games of University life and science in early 1900s Paris, but he was also more seduced by the fame and economic possibilities of their discoveries. Particularly a short scene where Pierre shows Marie a series of radioactive “beauty products” which he wanted to market, such as facial powder, toothpaste, etc., is both shocking and scary with hindsight.

While Radioactive focuses on Curie’s life and work at the Sorbonne, and also the sexism and bigotry she had to deal with (she was often berated for her Polish heritage), the film was consistently intriguing. The looks at her personal life are illuminating – she was apparently not a great mother and after her husband’s death got involved in a scandalous affair with another (married) scientist – if occasionally too much information.

However, Radioactive has one major stylistic quirk which nearly capsizes the whole enterprise.

Periodically the film suddenly flashes forward to future events which are related to the Curies’ discoveries – dramatizing things like Hiroshima, radiation therapy, the Nevada desert nuclear bomb tests and Chernobyl. Each of these sidetracks distract from the story and feel awkward in context of the film. Blaming the Curies for the atomic bomb is something like blaming the caveman who created the wheel for drunk driving. Yes, their discovery did eventually lead to some awfully bad things, but that was certainly not their intention. And the knowledge they brought to the world led to many good things, too.

Is the film trying to suggest that they were playing with forces that they did not really understand? Fair enough, but doesn’t that describe every significant scientific discovery? The Curies suffered for their findings in much more straightforward ways. It made him sick and led indirectly to his accidental young death, and it more directly eventually killed her as well. The story is dramatic enough without adding revisionist history to it. (For the record, both Curies were dead before the creation of the A-bomb.)

In the end, Radioactive is a fairly distinguished biography for an extremely distinguished and worthy woman. It is certainly possible that a better film could be made about the life of Madame Curie, but I find it hard to believe that anyone will find a more appropriate actress to portray her.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2020 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 24, 2020.

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