Film Review :Radioactive

Reviewer: Dave Cunningham

Writer: Jack Thorne from the graphic novel by Lauren Redniss

Director: Marjane Satrapi

Nowadays comics provide rich source material for adaptation to the cinema screen. Radioactive, Lauren Redniss’s graphic novel on the life of Marie Curie and the continuing impact of her discoveries, does not really conform to the formula of comics using text and large pictures rather than panels and word balloons. One of the more surprising aspects of the film adaptation is, however, the extent to which such challenging source material makes for a conventional movie.

Towards the end of the 19th Century in Paris Maria Salomea Skłodowska (Rosamund Pike) is working towards the discovery of the elements radium and polonium (which she named for her home country). However, Maria’s intense approach to work and her refusal to defer to those in authority make her unpopular and limit access to vital equipment. A chance meeting with fellow researcher Pierre Curie (Sam Riley) gives Maria access to a laboratory and the chance of a relationship. Married to Curie and using the name ‘Marie’ she becomes the first woman to win the Nobel Prize (twice) but faces public hostility due to changes in her personal life. The film makes clear that while Marie’s work led to such beneficial developments as chemotherapy and X-Rays it also resulted in the atomic bomb and the Chernobyl disaster.

Director Marjane Satrapi takes an orthodox approach to the story of Marie Curie. The early part of Jack Thorne’s script features a degree of inevitable exposition setting out pertinent detail – the number of female scientists in France- and carefully identifying characters by name. It makes for a slightly artificial mood, which is suitable for the odd courtship between Marie and Pierre with them flirting as if under laboratory conditions.

The film illustrates the impact (beneficial and otherwise) of the scientific discoveries by jumping forward in time to study children undergoing chemotherapy or the testing of atomic bombs.  This is not as intrusive (or as challenging) as one might imagine. Even if changes in clothing do not make the shifts in time clear, captions ensure there is no possibility of confusion. Only towards the end of the film, as Marie becomes ill, are there many stylish flourishes such as Marie offering comfort to an injured worker or witnessing an emergency vehicle heading towards Chernobyl.

The tone of the film is emotionally reserved. Although both Marie and Pierre become aware their discoveries may have an adverse effect on health they maintain a scientific detachment rather than sinking into guilt. The film takes a non-judgmental approach to this attitude and simply shows, by jumping forward to the future, the extent to which even apparently beneficial discoveries can have unforeseen consequences.

Radioactive, therefore, works best as a biography rather than a mediation on scientific responsibility. Rosamund Pike is a challenging Marie Curie – a workaholic who does not suffer fools gladly and whose social skills are so low as to appear rude. It is a restless, driven performance beautifully contrasted with Sam Riley’s understated portrayal of Pierre suggesting he is as much in awe as in love with Marie.

Although not as imaginative as might have been expected Radioactive remains a fine tribute to the achievements of an astonishing individual.

Released on 20 March 2020

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