Synopsis: An exploration of scientist Marie Curie’s life, beginning with her introduction to Pierre Curie.
When I was a kid, I learned in school that Marie Curie was the most famous historic lady of science. I was intrigued that she worked with her husband Pierre. I was scared to learn that their work had something to do with radiation which I knew could make people sick. Another thing that can make people sick is licking rocks. Yes, when I was in middle school Earth Science, our creepy science teacher insisted we taste various rocks and minerals as a way of identifying them. Thankfully, none of them were rich in radium. As far as I could taste anyway. These sorts of experiments made me wary of science courses.
Marie Sklodowska was unafraid of rocks and minerals. In fact she and her future partner, Pierre would routinely plunge their hands into mashed pitchblende, a mineral containing radium. One of the bennies of her work was that she had access to radium salts, a vial of which she kept by her bedside for its practical and magical glow.
At the beginning of Radioactive we see Marie (Rosamund Pike) meet-cute with Pierre (Sam Reilly). She is walking along a street in Paris, reading a book, when the two bump into each other. She drops her book and when Pierre retrieves it for her, he sees it is some super sciencey book. She thanks him and dashes off. He is besotted. But Marie only cares about her science experiments. Meanwhile he is like the peacock and she is like the hen who just wants to be left to her seeds, or in this case, her elements. Pierre offers her some lab space and she warms to him. They both get excited talking about science.
They marry and here is where director Marjane Santrapi tosses orthodoxy aside. We are shown a montage of their fevered work in the lab, alternating with their fevered tumblings in the bedroom. One afternoon, after a skinny dipping sesh, they lounge naked in the sun, aglow with talk of love and radiation.
For the next several years they diligently toil in the lab, dedicated to separating out elements from tons of ore. Marie produces two daughters, forgoes maternity leave and finally manages to discover two new elements: polonium and radium. Pierre and Marie announce their discovery and talk about radioactive rays to a panel of old, stuffy white guy scientists who glare at them. While science tries to parse out the characteristics of these elements, radium is quickly put to commercial use for important products like face and tooth powder that will leave the consumer with an unearthly glow. And cancer.
Now, I’m pleased that Radioactive brings attention to Marie Curie’s brilliant work and the misogyny that stymied her along the way. However, I wasn’t convinced that the movie shed light on her personality. Rosamund Pike plays Ms. Curie as a real firebrand. When the Curies share the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics (along with Henri Becquerel for their theory of radioactivity), Pierre goes alone to Stockholm to receive the honor. When he returns home, he sees Marie has worked herself into a lather. She hollers at him for “stealing my brilliance and making it your own.” Then she slaps him. Then he coughs. (Later she will start coughing too, but thankfully it’s not TB. Sadly, it’s radiation poisoning.)
But neither Curie went to accept their award in person, demurring that they were too busy to leave Paris. So why have this scene? Curie had reported that her “usual state was one of calm.” After reading about her interactions with others and her self-ascribed workload, she seemed to be more of a shy person and drab workaholic. But playing her personality as fiery does give Ms. Pike a lot more acting to do.
Radioactive is based on Lauren Redniss’ graphic novel, Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, a National Book Award finalist. I don’t know how closely the movie follows the book, but it mishandles its representation of the advances and repercussions of Curie’s work; there are clumsy flashforwards showing radiation treatment of cancer and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. I felt like I was watching an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation wherein Marie Curie is the defendant in a trial put on by extraterrestrials. She would have to answer for all the bad things that her discoveries led to while space creatures judged her attempts to exonerate herself with the plea: But, Radiology!!!
The movie plods along through Marie Curie’s accomplishments, the highlight being her 1911 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Rosamund Pike has more opportunities to act her heart out: she scream-cries after a personal tragedy, holds her head high after a jealous ex-friend slaps her and blazes across WWI battlefields in an ambulance. Huh? Yes, not content to add to the periodic table, she delivered and fixed portable x-ray machines. Maybe she had a notion of History- or aliens- judging her life’s work.
It is right to laud Marie Curie’s scientific genius, including her uphill battle for recognition from her male peers. If only Radioactive had a deep dive reconstruction of her personality. Or at least scenes of her and Pierre doing some groundbreaking rock licking: Radium–it tastes like mushroom soup!
P.S. Marie Curie won both of her Nobels before women even had the right to vote in the United States (1920) or Britain (1918, suffrage for women at least 30 yrs of age).
PPS. Slight spoilers… Some quibbles about jettisoned facts in the movie: Marie wasn’t reluctant to marry Pierre bc her love of Science was so strong; she felt strongly that she was obligated to return to her native Poland. Also, she didn’t angrily break up with her her later-in-life lover (physicist Paul Langevin); instead she encouraged him to permanently break with his estranged wife. The ensuing scandal saw the French public turn against her as a homewrecker. That doesn’t seem very French. But apparently, xenophobia spurred along the reaction.
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