The word Radioactive triggers immense fear in many. When exposed to the human body, it weakens DNA. Given enough time, it can cause cells to mutate and become cancerous. The universe contains a multitude of ironies, not the least of which is that the same radium can also help target and eliminate cancer in the human body. In her latest film, director Marjane Satrapi examines the many lives of radium and compares it to the person who discovered its existence, Marie Sklodowska Curie.
Based off of the graphic novel Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss, Radioactive uses the major events over the known life of radium to create a frame around Curie’s own life. Satrapi presents a cradle-to-grave biopic of the renowned scientist. Chernobyl, Little Boy decimating Hiroshima, the discovery of radium as a cancer treatment, and the bomb testings in the ’50s correlate with the major events of Curie’s life. Her breakdown after the death of her husband aligns with the catastrophe at Chernobyl. As Curie’s learns the toxic effects of radium, scenes of a young boy being treated by radium for his cancer cuts through the disappointment Curie feels.
A unique perspective of a scientist with a very full life, Radioactive expands on Satrapi’s history of telling the full lives of women. Like her previous work, Persepolis, mother-daughter relationships take center stage. Curie’s relationship with her mother and her experiences as a mother herself shape the narrative of the film. Her mother, more a poet in spirit than a scientist, died early, after which a young Curie locked herself away. She stopped speaking, and she learned to only trust facts.
There’s also a love story at the center of this film. In another creator’s hands, it may have felt derivative of the great work Curie did, but in Satrapi’s, Curie’s courtship and marriage to Pierre Curie (Sam Riley) exhibit the best parts of a committed partnership. They are supportive, even when combative. They work to build a life together while maintaining their independent internal beliefs. Pierre welcomes mysticism as probable science and has the same poetic outlook Marie’s mother possessed.
As Marie, Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) excels, taking Curie from a cynical and proud young woman to a stubborn and enlightened senior with subtle craft. Behind her early posturing, an element of fear exists. As if she’s afraid everything will be taken away in the blink of an eye. As a widow, her views on death are challenged. When Marie’s sister asks if she believes their mother went to a better place, Curie responds, “Yes. She in a hole in the ground in Poland. Which is better than Paris.” But after Piere’s accident, she seeks out mysticism, and it changes the emotional direction of the film. Pike deflates, her luster dulled. It’s hard to imagine anyone giving as riveting a performance in the role. When Paris turns on Curie for sleeping with a married man, a crowd gathers outside her window yelling at her to go back to Poland, calling her every filthy name in the book, Pike doesn’t show hurt in her performance, or disdain, but chooses instead understanding. As Curie does her best to be unaffected by the madness, it’s only her children that give her pause.
Life, death, science, mysticism, love and hate blend together to reveal depths of an internationally renowned genius. Deeply personal, sometimes tipping into the experimental, Radioactive is like no biographical feature I’ve ever seen. A definitively feminist film, Radioactive says a lot about the power of a united front of women. (Women made sure Curie received her second Nobel Prize.) Radioactive also says a lot about allowing oneself to be loved and about believing in one’s individual power—it would be magical to live a life as full as Curie’s.
Director: Marjane Satrapi
Writer: Lauren Redniss (graphic novel); Jack Thorne (screenplay)
Starring: Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Anya Taylor-Joy, Simon Russell Beale, Cara Bossom
Release Date: September 14, 2019 (premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival)