Biopics are generally challenging to make. The creators are faced with a test, where they must present the facts in an authentic yet intriguing way to attract and entertain the audience.
It’s even more difficult when you choose to tell the story of such a phenomenal woman as Marie Sklodowska-Curie (originally Maria in Polish but became Marie, as we know her now). Marjane Satrapi (The Voices) takes on this challenge in her new period drama, Radioactive. The film, starring Rosamund Pike as Curie, is not a typical biopic. Although it possesses a few flaws and sometimes stumbles, Satrapi’s vision and Jack Thorne’s script make it a very intriguing film about a pioneer who changed the world of medicine, chemistry, and physics.
Paris, 1895. Ambitious yet awkward, Marie Sklodowska is already an established scientist when she meets Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), who’s also a well-known researcher. A rather apprehensive meeting transforms into true love, where an extreme passion for science and the relationship between the two people leads to the biggest discoveries of all. Radioactive exhibits Marie and Pierre’s way to the century’s biggest breakthrough: the development of two new elements, radium and polonium (named by Marie after her native country, Poland).
Marie Sklodowska-Curie was devoted to her life in France. It’s worth mentioning that she left Poland to study in Sorbonne because in the XIX century, women weren’t allowed to study in there. Curie was the first ever female Nobel Prize winner (and a two-time laureate) and the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris. Satrapi gives us Marie Sklodowska-Curie in all of her glory and, together with Pike’s portrayal, freshens the memory of a legendary pioneer, whose discovery of radium and polonium changed our world. Radioactive is truly extraordinary. It doesn’t focus on dates, but rather on the feelings and emotions that accompany Marie during important life events. The film displays the scientist’s immense strength and ambition – she has to prove herself in a male-dominated field where she’s repeatedly ignored and patronized. Satrapi’s direction touches the issue of women in science quite often. These emotions are most apparent in moments when Marie is tired of being “just a wife” and not appreciated enough without Pierre standing next to her. It’s not hard to be empathetic with her feelings of hopelessness and frustration, especially when the pair wins a Nobel Prize, but only Pierre’s name appears on the invitation. A sequence where the woman’s lab is taken away by the board, which consists of all men, infuriates her. And it’s this frustration, one that turns into resilience, that keeps her motivated. In search of a new lab, fate leads her to the future husband, then one of the biggest discoveries.
Rosamund Pike is outstanding in portraying Marie and her personality. She perfectly captures the scientist’s goal and legacy that wasn’t always shiny and bright. On one side, the actress displays the experimental mind of the woman. On the other, in Pike’s portrayal, Marie is extremely hard-working woman, tired of living in her husband’s shadow. Satrapi explicates every angle of Curie’s life: her personality, outstanding achievements, marriage, motherhood, and legacy of her discoveries. The film can be divided into two parts: the first is dedicated to two main characters and their path to success. The second is devoted to the aftermath of their scientific discovery.
Sam Riley keeps a steady pace with his talented film companion. The director perfectly captures a true partnership and astonishing dynamic between Marie and Pierre. Their bond, passion, and their way of working was reminiscent of how Lorraine and Ed Warren are portrayed in Conjuring films.
As exhilarating and (partly) controversial as Marie Sklodowska-Curie is in Radioactive, there are a few small flaws. The first of them is the lack of Polish and French speaking accents. That, however, may be simply my subjective observation and doesn’t take away from the plot. When watching Radioactive, one can also notice that the transitions in the scenes are seldom rough around the edges. However, those small imperfections don’t disrupt the excellent performance of Pike.
Being a sucked for dramas, I couldn’t stop but remark incredible costumes and hairstyles of the end of 1800s and beginning of the 1900s. Consolata Boyle, the costume designer for Radioactive, helped bring authenticity to the plot and absolutely nailed the clothing of the main character. Robert Wischhusen-Hayes also assisted the audience in visualizing Paris in the 1800-1900s with his set decoration.
The film as a whole is like a rough diamond – it may be rough around the edges, yet tells the extraordinary narrative. Satrapi delivers a sublime story about one of the most legendary pioneers and does it right. In her vision, the director also includes moments where science borders on spiritualism. To help, she uses blurry shots, as well as a close-ups of the characters’ faces. One of the most interesting elements that make this biopic different than others are the scenes of scientific reactions appearing before the audience’s eyes. Simultaneously, the characters talk about said reactions, and the average viewer can easily comprehend it.
When I say that the film is unusual, I mean it. While we get to know the extraordinary woman who’s rather short with people and spends days in her lab, Satrapi also offers us a look into the radium legacy that had positive and negative impacts. We jump in time, following Marie, then go to the Chernobyl or experience nuclear bomb test hitting the staged city and melting mannequins of a mother, father, and a child. The film also displays the advances that scientists had in cancer treatment and the usage of x-ray, all thanks to Marie and Pierre.
“They merely have a problem separating my scientific life from my personal life,” Marie says to her daughter in one scene. Satrapi’s vision was to show the scientist’s whole life, where she was not only a phenomenal researcher, but a mother, wife, and a woman. It may have a few stumbles, but what makes it way different is a presentation of Marie’s life and the aftermath of her discoveries in the long run.
Marie was the embodiment of an incredible passion for science. For these passions, she was also shunned by the Parisian society. In the end, she died doing what she loved the most and changed our world forever. Radioactive gives a tribute to her life, love, and legacy – the film is worth attention.
Radioactive will be available on Amazon Prime on July 24th.