Movie Review: ‘Radioactive’

Director: Marjane Satrapi

Cast: Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie, Sam Riley as Pierre Curie, Anna Taylor-Joy as Irene Curie, Aneurin Barnard as Paul Langevin

Review: Marie Curie (1867 – 1934) was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel prize, and the only woman in history to receive two (physics in 1903 and chemistry in 1911). She is perhaps one of the most influential and recognised scientists in modern times and an inspiration to people interested in the STEM fields, particularly young girls and women.  

Based on Lauren Redniss’s graphic novel, Radioactive explores the life accomplishments, struggles, and legacy of Marie Curie but fails to deliver a seamlessly enjoyable movie.

The movie begins at the end. A much older Marie surveys her lab, before collapsing and being rushed to hospital. As she is raced through the dingy early-20th century corridors, lights flickering and whizzing above her, she is propelled back in time to ‘re-visit’ her life.

From here, we watch a younger, spirited Marie take on a university board of old professors and lose access to the laboratory due to her ‘constant demands’. We meet her future husband and fellow scientist Pierre Curie and watch them build a laboratory and life together. The two – combining Marie’s theoretical knowledge and Pierre’s technical knowledge – soon discover two new elements polonium and radium. Marie coins the term ‘radioactivity’ and they begin to explore the potential of such a discovery.

Despite the otherwise engaging story and excellent acting on Rosamund Pike and Sam Riley’s behalf, the story moves in a very blocky manner: a patchwork of life moments and their worldly implications.

For every significant moment in Marie’s life, there is a sudden leap forward in time to show the consequence of her scientific innovation. We quickly move from her discovery of polonium and radium to a 1957 hospital, which for the first time will use radiation to treat a child with cancer. Pierre’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech is eclipsed by the detonation of the atomic bomb ‘Little Boy’ over Hiroshima in 1945, and Marie’s long-denied grief and acceptance of the loss of her husband is interrupted with a blazing firetruck attending the nuclear disaster that was Chernobyl in 1986.

All of these events happened long after Marie’s time and yet they stick in the fabric of her life like stubborn prickles, even haunting her before her death in vivid hallucinations. This ultimately weakens the point of the scenes – to show how monumental her discoveries were, how they changed the world for better and for worse.

The erratic and sudden nature of these jumps through time disrupt pivotal plot points and more importantly undermine emotional scenes that ultimately forge the empathy an audience holds for the movie’s characters. Between these few redeeming scenes designed to psychologically connect the audience to Marie, she is shown to be rude, arrogant, and emotionally erratic. As a result, the movie simultaneously frames Marie – perhaps purposefully – in the ever-luminescent light of rebellious genius and as a dark angel of death, forever clutching at the green vial of her invented poison. However, she was also a mother, wife, and painfully human. She was an immigrant in a strange and unwelcoming land, and a strong-willed female in an incredibly male-dominated field. The movie balances precariously in-between the two, uncertain on where the focus lies.

The artistic manner in which this movie is arranged – future continually overlaying the past, often to its detriment – is curious and perhaps inspired by the medium of graphic novel the movie was based on. Still, this style creates an emotional divide between the audience and Marie, which might not have existed if the future events had been woven into the story as an epilogue, rather than as sporadic interludes.

Overall, Radioactive is a good movie. The actors do a remarkable job, and the story and its messages/warnings of moral and scientific consequence is educational if a little jarring in its delivery. This movie would be a good introduction to Marie Curie and her scientific legacy, although it might leave a less scientifically-minded audience reaching for Google for clarification once the credits roll.    

Rating: 6/10