Scientific discovery goes hand in hand with tragedy. Every monumental leap forward in progress is met with an unintended consequence sooner or later; every major innovation comes with a cost, be it personal, professional, or global. But should that unknown cost prevent experimentation and innovation in the name of betterment? And how does one measure the benefit of a scientific discovery versus a cost that may only become known over time?
These are heady questions with no easy answers, but they’re ones that renowned scientist Marie Curie had to wrestle with time and again throughout her life, as chronicled in the new film Radioactive. While the story treads familiar territory to anyone who’s seen a biopic about a famous Great Man, director Marjane Satrapi elegantly considers the cost at the heart of Curie’s discoveries, and Rosamund Pike delivers a truly stirring performance as the scientist behind the pioneering field of radioactivity, and the valiant woman behind so many “firsts” for female professionals.
To be honest, Radioactive starts a bit rough. The film opens with Curie being rushed to the hospital, seemingly on her deathbed, as her life flashes before her eyes. It points towards the tedious, boring, by-the-numbers biopic that Radioactive flirts with here and there, but thankfully never fully embraces. Once the film gets into its groove and Pike gets a chance to shine, Curie’s story finds its footing in the scientist’s dedication to her work.
Radioactive covers all the major bases of Curie’s life, from her struggle to find funding and respect as a female scientist to her partnership with scientist Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), who she would later marry. Combining their knowledge and research, the Curies discovered two new elements—radium and polonium—and developed the theory of radioactivity, which completely changed the way scientists thought about the atom. They won a Nobel Prize for their research (Marie won two in her lifetime), but they chose not to file for a patent so that fellow scientists could further research radioactivity, and new applications began to arise.
Satrapi gracefully lets the audience in on the impact of Curie’s work by intermittently intercutting short scenes depicting applications of Curie’s discovery decades later. These range from the positive, like the use of radiation therapy to shrink a cancerous tumor on a young boy, to the negative, like the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It’s a striking device that on its own may have come off as distracting, but in the context of Curie’s own discomfort drills down the film’s themes about the cost of scientific progress.
Curie and her husband became sick from the radiation, and once others experimenting with radium fell ill in and around Paris, the city turned on Madame Curie and began to look upon the once-lauded scientist with scorn. Curie could never have predicted the side-effects of her discovery, just as she could never have predicted that it might become an essential treatment for cancer or a key to unlocking a weapon of mass destruction. But although she weighs the great losses in her life, tying them to her research, she forges ahead in the name of science, undeterred. This is the life she chose to lead, and she’ll lead it to the best of her ability, at a personal cost of her own. Indeed, later on in the film Curie confesses to her daughter that her life of science—with all its successes and failures—has brought her little joy.
This sacrifice is a key distinction for Curie, and one that Pike plays beautifully. The scientist never comes off as tragic or melodramatic, and yet you can feel the weight of guilt and regret on her shoulders piercing through the screen, even as she’s saving countless lives. Pike is nuanced and yet strikingly human, bringing complexity to a role that in the wrong hands may have come off as either maudlin or cold—and Curie was neither. She was a human being, and it’s refreshing to see a biopic unafraid of delving into the complexities and contradictions that make up a real, live person. Especially one so important not just to the world of science, but to the progress of women the world over.
That’s not to say Radioactive isn’t without familiarity. The screenplay by Jack Thorne does indeed do a nice job of shading Curie out, but follows a rhythm similar to most biopics—meteoric rise, tragic fall, comeback, etc. Certain key aspects of Curie’s life, like her affair with Paul Langevin or her relationship with her daughters, feel a bit underdeveloped, while the film’s familiar structure can become tedious. But the chemistry between Pike and Riley carries the many (many) scenes meant to depict the love the scientist couple felt for each other, and the electrified, vibrant score by Evgueni Galperine and Sacha Galperine keeps the film pulsing ahead.
If we’re used to innumerable forgettable biopics about the Great Men of History, it’s refreshing that Radioactive at least attempts to offer significant breaks from that formula in chronicling the life of a Great Woman of History—even if it doesn’t succeed the entire time. Pike delivers quite possibly her best performance since Gone Girl (although she’s quite good in A Private War), and the film serves as a striking reminder that her talent is still somehow underutilized. Satrapi, meanwhile, ambitiously stretches the visual language of a biopic to underline Curie’s legacy, all the while considering that every great scientific discovery opens up a host of possibilities—both for good, and for ill.
That’s true of every major decision in life, really. A rock is thrown into a lake, but one can’t control where the ripples go. Radioactive is a nice reminder that one ardent, brilliant woman was responsible for so much good in the world, with a legacy spanning decades, but it also came at a serious cost.