22 Jul 2020

Movie review: Radioactive

From At The Movies, 7:03 pm on 22 July 2020

Radioactive tells the story of Nobel Prize-winning physicist and chemist Marie Curie and her husband Pierre. While the Curies did brilliant work, their lives don't make for a brilliant narrative, says Simon Morris.

Simon Morris: The reputation of scientist Marie Curie has always been high - even if we're not always sure of what precisely she discovered.

And over the years, her life - often linked with her husband Pierre Curie - has been the subject of several movies.

Greer Garson played her in a 1943 Hollywood version, and there have been others from France and Poland. The latest comes from Britain's Working Title and is called Radioactive.

Rosamund Pike plays the prickly Marie Sklodowska, a Polish physicist and chemist with a bee in her bonnet about atoms.

In 1893, she's working in Paris, where her life is a constant battle with the stuffy powers that be. What she needs is help from someone with a spare laboratory.

And what are the odds? The chance meeting with fellow scientist Pierre Curie is so clumsy and unlikely that I suspect - or at least I hope - that's what actually happened.

Pierre, as played by Sam Riley, is the nicest man in the world, a worthy foil to the complex, self-centred Marie.

I mean, we have to have some drama here, don't we? Anyway, the two work so well together - she's brilliant and inspired, he's careful and technically sophisticated - that one thing inevitably leads to another.

They get married shortly after discovering radium.

In fact, they also discover the rather less well-known polonium at the same time. And this underlines the difficulty in making a biopic about well-known scientists.

We've heard of them, and we know certain things about them, but not much about their actual work. We do know they both won a Nobel Prize for physics.

Well, eventually they both won it after Pierre put pressure on the Nobel people.

We're told that their work was in the area of radiation and X-Rays, even if the details of what it all means are a bit rich for the blood of the non-scientific community.

Radioactive does attempt to provide some context to the Curies' work and achievements by occasionally flashing forward to see some well-known events that stemmed from their research.

Though I have to say some of them do Marie Curie very few favours.

We see a little American boy getting the world's first radiation treatment for cancer. But we also see the dropping of the Atom bomb over Hiroshima, and the later disaster of Chernobyl.

Radiation isn't always our friend.

The film's director is rather interesting - the Iranian Marjane Satrapi who is best known for directed an animated version of her own graphic novel Persepolis a few years ago.

Radioactive certainly looks great - the cinematographer is the great Anthony Dod Mantle. But the script is a bit of a mess.

No reflection on Rosamund Pike who puts some interesting meat on the bones of an underwritten character.

Marie was a prickly proto-feminist in a sexist world, but she stuck to her guns and became one of the most famous women in the world.

The narrative trouble with high achievers like Marie, Pierre - and indeed their daughter Irene, later a Nobel Prize winner herself - is that their work is the reason for their fame.

Radioactive attempts to include the gossipy extras to her life - her celebrity friends, an affair with a younger colleague.

But in the end, they're dwarfed by the final photograph of Marie, the one woman in a group of the world's greatest scientists, including Curie fan Albert Einstein.

There's a famous French quote about the Charge of the Light Brigade - "c'est magnifique mais ce n'est pas la guerre" - it's magnificent but it's not war.

You could say the same about the lives of someone like the Curies. They're clearly wonderful, but I'm not sure there's a movie in them.

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to At The Movies

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)