Radioactive (2020) ***

June 19th, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Marjane Satrapi | Wri: Jack Thorne | Cast: Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jonathan Aris, Simon Russell Beale, Aneurin Bernard,

Iranian director Marjane Satrapi’s film about Nobel prize winner Marie Curie may be flawed but it’s certainly not boring. Hampered by Jack Thorne’s sprawling script, Radioactive isn’t sure whether it wants to be a love story about a woman’s fight for professional recognition, or a costume drama about the discovery of radium – with plenty of ideas flying around. In the end we get an over-ambitious but fascinating film that starts in the 1890s and continues to the present day and beyond. 

Radioactive opens in 1934 just as an ageing Marie Curie (aka Maria Skłodowska ) is living out her final days. Death comes with a message from the grave in the moving bedside finale which shows how love impacted on the amazing mind of the celebrated Polish scientist. She was much maligned by her male peers, but reached her professional potential, and had a crack and love and motherhood into the bargain: quite an achievement back in the day.

The story then swings back to the 1890s where the febrile but earnest young Maria Sadowska (Pike) is having a hard time with her crusty old colleagues in a Paris laboratory where she is desperate to make her way in the world of science. After being given the professional heave-ho from the lab by Simon Russell Beale’s Professor Lipmann, Marie comes across a fellow scientist Pierre Curie (played convincingly by Sam Riley) and the two fall in love despite her efforts to repel him and forge her own path. Motherhood will eventually prevent her from triumphing over Pierre, who steals her professional fire, but then falls prey to tuberculosis and a roadside tragedy, his death recreated in a captivating dream sequence. This is an emotional setback for Marie (“I don’t want be strong, I want to be weak”) but she still goes on indomitably to save lives with her X ray discovery and cancer radiation therapy – and although it isn’t all plain sailing, her perseverance and brainpower win through.

Marred by its over-ambitiousness and an eerie electronic score that doesn’t quite gel with the early scenes, Radioactive is informative but often bewildering as it romps through Marie Curie’s ground-breaking work. Rosamund Pike is stunning as the steely medical pioneer, her allure keeps us captivated throughout the sprawling storyline with its tonally awkward twists and turns. The science is carried along by the couple’s tender love story bonding them as they form a joint venture, discovering radium and polonium by condensing soil samples. Their life-saving discoveries not only made medical history but also captured the imagination of the public: polonium and radium were found to emit rays that started a craze for all things radioactive – even a dance in Parisian nightclubs called the “pif paf pouf”.  

Satrapi goes for an art nouveau aesthetic throughout, not always pulling it off – the scenes with the legendary Loie Fuller (The Dancer) work best in conveying the fin de siecle mystique in Paris and beyond. Despite its setbacks on a critical level this is an enjoyable romp through medical history with some inspired visual wizardry. The pic also visits the 1950s with a focus on cancer therapy; the First World War where Curie’s X-rays saved thousands from amputations; Hiroshima and even Chernobyl. What emerges through all the pioneering strife is the Curie’s love for each other, and Marie’s fierce commitment to science that won her respectability as one of the key figures in modern medicine. As Pierre Curie comments: “There are things to be scared of, but so much to celebrate” and Marie Curie’s legacy continues to save lives and help all of us still today. MT

ON RELEASE FROM June 19 2020


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