The ambitious “Radioactive,” available from Amazon Prime, will interest fans of the 1943 classic “Madame Curie,” starring Greer Garson as scientist Marie Curie and Walter Pidgeon as her beloved husband and supportive collaborator, Pierre. But it will also appeal to audiences who prefer history with a modern perspective.
It starts out ordinary enough. The film’s pedestrian opening depicts Curie, born Maria Sklodowska in Poland in 1867, pushing her way into the all-male bastions of science in Paris. But soon the film gives way to a more novel approach. It is called “Radioactive” for a reason. It’s directed by Marjane Satrapi, who co-directed “Persepolis” (2007) based on her own graphic novel about her childhood in revolutionary Iran. She adheres to enjoyably conventional depictions of Curie’s rise as a gifted, obsessed scientist who suffers no fools and wins the Nobel Prize twice.
But the film shifts in time and tone to also examine the future outcomes that Curie’s groundbreaking discoveries of the elements radium and polonium wrought on the world, namely, the creation of the atomic bomb. Even during Curie’s lifetime, to her horror, people were dying from radium poisoning as the “wonder element” found its way into everyday products.
Rosamund Pike, as Curie, is outstanding in a role that, if this were any normal year, might net her an Oscar nomination. She creates a Curie distinct from the heroine of history, and even from Garson’s conventionally heroic portrayal.
After Pierre Curie (Sam Riley) dies in a tragic accident, a bereft Marie seeks comfort in the arms of a married colleague (Aneurin Barnard) and earns the sexist wrath of her community. Curie emerges as a sympathetic, brilliant, tough-as-nails figure in a film that highlights both her historical and contemporary importance.