Surely Marie Curie is one of the most influential people in all of human history. Her work in nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry has altered the course of civilization in multiple directions, informing new weapons to kill and new medicines to heal. She’s still the only person — male or female — to win two Nobel Prizes in two different disciplines. How is it possible that there has not been a major film about her since *checks notes* 1943’s Madame Curie? (It starred Greer Garson, who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in the title role; the film got six more noms, too.) Which was before the full impact of her work had been realized in such inventions as the atomic bomb and radiotherapy treatments for cancer. This is criminal… but it’s also entirely emblematic of the sexism entrenched in our culture that Curie battled constantly while she was alive. (See also: this Polish film about Curie that focuses primarily on her love life.)
But now we have Radioactive, an unsentimental portrait of a woman who strove to be appreciated for her mind in a world in which the game was even more stacked against women than it is today. Feminist without ever uttering the word (or any 19th-century analogue for it), this is an intellectual romance in all ways: between Marie and the natural world; between Marie and Pierre, her partner in science and in life; perhaps most movingly between Marie and her wonder and worry about how her work would change the future. This deliciously flinty film is also a smart depiction of how art and science influence each other, and how emotion and temperament drive achievement and excellence. It is all about how the pursuit of knowledge is a wholly human pursuit caught up in the push-and-pull between fact and feeling, between reason and the irrational.
We look back on Curie’s life with her. The film opens in 1934, when she collapses in her lab in Paris. She is 66 years old and has been suffering for decades from the debilitating effects of long-term exposure to radiation. As she is dying, she is overcome by memories of her past but also by intimations from the world to come: devastating injuries at Hiroshima and Chernobyl, but also the lifesaving treatments that nuclear medicine will bring. There’s nothing mystical or supernatural in any of this — indeed, we will see that Curie has a contentious relationship with the spiritualism that was all the rage around the turn of the 20th century, partly fueled by expanding ideas about the nature of the universe that Curie herself helped formulate. So no: Curie’s foresight may be dreamlike, but it is grounded in a sense of assuredness. Her dreams were always thus: realities she sensed but hadn’t yet confirmed.
“You threw a stone in the water,” the spirit of Pierre (Sam Riley: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Sometimes Always Never) tells her as she’s dying. “The ripples you can’t control.” There’s no indication that she would have wanted to control the ripples… but she knew the ripples would be there. A tapestry of connection and consequence is woven in a simple, profound way through Radioactive. Director Marjane Satrapi (The Voices, Persepolis) — working from Lauren Redniss’s graphic novel, with a script by Jack Thorne (Wonder, War Book) — lets moments of deep import slip by in a breath of inevitability, as when we glimpse just how many young female scientists are busy at work in Curie’s 1934 lab, a clue to the dramatic change in opportunity for women from when Curie was their age. Satrapi lets the glacial pace of the Curies’ work be measured in Marie’s pregnancies and the growth of their children; I don’t think I’ve ever seen the story of an important man’s life and work play out thusly, with family not an afterthought or a distraction but all part of the same journey. (One of the Curies’ daughters, Irène, played here briefly as a young woman by Anya Taylor-Joy [Emma., Playmobil: The Movie], would also become a scientist, and would also win a Nobel Prize.) Other little tidbits remind us how perceptions of what matters are always shifting: when she is newly arrived in Paris from Poland to study science, Marie — née Maria Skłodowska — lives in a cold garret overlooking Monsieur Eiffel’s abomination of a tour, which was probably considered a terrible view, fit only for a poor student.
Rosamund Pike (A Private War, Beirut), as Curie, is perfection, the steel she always brings to the screen brilliantly eviscerating any of the sadly usual misogynist damnations of ambitious women. Pike’s Curie is not stubborn: she is exacting. She is not arrogant: she is honest. She is not difficult: she holds herself to the highest levels of professionalism and integrity. When she (with Pierre) announces the discoveries of new elements radium and polonium, and the concurrent explanation of radioactivity for their odd behavior, she says, to the science academy that had previously kicked her out because, they said, her equipment took up too much space: “We are here to tell you that you have fundamentally misunderstood the atom.” She says it matter-of-factly, without glee, because the truth of this is repudiation of them enough. Her happiness comes in talking about her ideas; they are her vindication, but that is secondary to the ideas themselves.
Curie’s brilliance and her dedication in following her scientific instincts to their logical conclusions are of course inspiring here. But it’s her refusal to be limited by the expectations of her gender — even when she faced a high price for it — that is the real takeaway from Radioactive. Not that girls and women should take a cue from her, though naturally we have little choice but to. But that everyone — men and women alike — should ask why we put those extra barriers in front of women, and how we can dismantle them. Because the inescapable question Marie Curie’s story leaves us with it this: What other knowledge about the universe are we yet to discover because women have been, and continue to be, discouraged from entering the sciences and thwarted if we do?
Radioactive is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for April 13th. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.