It’s inarguable that the pioneering work of Marie and Pierre Curie changed the world, for both good and ill. “Radioactive,” the new film starring Rosamund Pike and Sam Riley as the late-nineteenth century Parisians, gives us a brief on the life, and, yes, the deaths, largely due to radiation poisoning, of the couple that is part love story, part scientific procedural and, somewhat strangely, decides to also jump through time (more on this later).
The new film is directed by the Iranian-French director Marjane Satrapi (she of the Oscar-nominated “Persepolis”) from a screenplay by Jack Thorne, adapted from the book by Lauren Redniss. Thorne’s screenplay begins with the tried-and-true narrative device of the now-elderly Marie Curie, coughing and ill, being wheeled into a 1930s infirmary. We then jump back to Paris of the 1890s, where Marie Curie, born in Poland as Maria Salomea Skłodowska, makes the acquaintance of the dashing young scientist Pierre Curie, who, in the grand tradition of movie nerds since time immemorial, is awkward around this fiercely independent and strikingly intelligent woman.
The meet-cute behind them, the film gets to its heart, which is exploring gender politics at a time when women, if they were in the sciences at all, were grossly pushed aside or outright ignored. So it was for Maria, and we get the sense in early scenes of her courtship with Pierre that she saw him more as a way into the closed society of Paris’s all-male science academies than potential life partner. However, the scenes of courtship are well rendered in Thorne’s screenplay (“I will not be your mistress,” Marie tells Pierre, before he has even hinted at such a possibility), and Satrapi’s careful blocking of Pike and Riley allows the two scientists to organically become a couple—rather than simply because film convention says they must.
The couple continues their lab research, in the hopes that radioactivity could, in theory, one day be used to treat cancer. However, Marie is hesitant to physically step into any medical treatment scenario, which her husband helpfully explains is impractical for a scientist hoping to apply radiation in a clinical setting (her reasons, such as they are when explained, are a bit strange when viewed in light of her chosen profession, but judge for yourself.)
Ah, but could radiation also be used for destructive purposes? We’ve known the answer to this since World War I, and the film then makes several jumps forward in time to the fifties to a U.S. military base in the desert, where the newest iteration of atomic bombs is being tested. There’s a harrowing sequence that is likely the most visceral recreation of a nuclear explosion since “Terminator 2.” But why any of this is necessary is mysterious: It’s almost as if the filmmakers don’t trust us to connect the dots on our own, and hence throw in this odd subplot.
There is another head-scratching subplot involving the Curies befriending a medium, who either talks to the dead, as Pierre believes, or is a charlatan, as Marie asserts. This will pay off late in the film’s runtime, but I could have done without the ghosts appearing in Marie’s dream sequences.
Fortunately, these are short digressions, and back to turn-of-the-century Paris we go as the Curies are awarded the Nobel Prize for their work, but only Pierre can be recognized in Stockholm, leaving Marie at home to tend the children. Pike is marvelous in this section of the film, raging at Pierre for—if not purposefully, then inadvertently—turning her into the type of wife she never wanted to be.
Her chance will come, but with it a steep price as illness and tragedy become permanent residents in the Maison du Curie—along with a nativist backlash against her non-Frenchness, to boot.
Rosamund Pike, as always, is outstanding, and commands the screen with a masterfully modulated mixture of rage at not being taken seriously solely because of her gender, along with her belief that the work can greatly benefit all mankind. In film after film she proves herself among our greatest thespians and “Radioactive” will certainly burnish that reputation.
The new film has more good scenes than bad, and one can’t help but leave the “theater” with a greater appreciation for this scientific pioneer, who broke not only gender barriers but refused to be seen as solely riding her husband’s coattails. What the Curies accomplished could only have been done jointly, and Marie’s decades of work following Pierre’s death, as well as the continuing scientific inquiry taken up by their daughter Irène, shows that if the doors of science were at one time closed to women, not just tenacity but ultimately results would force them open.
Available for streaming Friday