If you want to talk about the birth of the modern world, you have to talk about Marie Curie.
That’s the argument made by the biopic, Radioactive. It’s a compelling argument and it’s very much correct. Born in Poland and a citizen of France, Marie Curie was the 1st woman to win the Nobel Prize, the 1st person and only woman to win the Nobel Prize a second time, and the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two scientific fields. She shared her first Nobel Prize (in Physics) with her husband, Pierre. After Pierre’s tragic death, Marie won her second Nobel, this time for Chemistry. Both her daughter and her son-in-law would go on to win Nobel Prizes of their own and the Curie family continues to produce notable scientists to this very day.
Marie Curie is best known for her pioneering research on radioactivity, a coin that she termed. She developed techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes. She discovered that radioactivity could be used to battle aggressive forms of cancer. Without her research, there would be no nuclear power, no chemotherapy, no X-ray machines, and no atomic weaponry. Marie Curie is one of the few people about whom it can legitimately be said that they changed the world. Of course, Curie herself later died of a radiation poisoning.
Radioactive opens with Marie (played by Rosamund Pike) on the verge of death, before flashing back to show us her early life and she went from being an obscure scientist to becoming the world renowned Madame Curie. We watch as she meets and falls in love with Pierre Curie (Sam Riley). The film celebrates not only their love for each other but also takes a look at Marie’s struggle to escape from Pierre’s shadow. Though she was acknowledged as his partner and won her first Nobel Prize with him, it’s not until Pierre is trampled death by a bunch of horses that Marie’s genius is truly acknowledged. The scenes in which Marie expresses her frustration at being overshadowed by her husband are some of the best in the film, largely because the film doesn’t make the mistake of attempting to portray Pierre as intentionally stealing all of the glory for himself. Instead, society just assumes that Pierre deserves most of the credit because …. well, Pierre’s a man and Marie’s a woman.
Unfortunately, Radioactive makes some perplexing narrative choices. Throughout the film, there are random moments when we get a sudden flashfoward and see random people interacting with radioactivity. For instance, we go to a hospital in the 1950s and we listen as a doctor explains that he’s going to use radioactivity to help a patient combat cancer. Another scene features the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. We see the nuclear tests in Los Alamos. One moment, Marie is crying in the middle of the street. The next minute, an ambulance drives past her, on the way to Chernobyl. On the one hand, it’s easy to see what the film’s going for. It’s showing us everything, good and bad, that will happen as a result of Marie Curie’s work. It makes the very relevant argument that sometimes, in order to get something good (less pollution, treatments for cancer) you have to risk something bad, like the possibility of being vaporized by an atomic bomb. But the flashforwards are handled so clumsily that they actually detract from the film. When I watched the sequence taking place at the hospital, I found myself wondering if Marie Curie discovered bad acting before or after she discovered radioactivity. This is probably one of the few instances where a biopic would have been helped by taking a more traditional approach to its material.
On the plus side, Radioactive does feature a very good performance from Rosamund Pike, who really deserves to be known for more than just killing Neil Patrick Harris in Gone Girl. (Don’t spoiler alert me. The film’s nearly 6 years old. If you haven’t seen it yet, you weren’t ever going to.) Radioactive is currently playing on Amazon Prime and you should definitely watch it if you’re planning on keeping radioactive isotopes in your desk at work. Seriously, don’t do it.