‘Radioactive’ celebrates Marie Curie’s life and discoveries

A film by Marjane Satrapi, Radioactive presents itself as a biopic with a twist. On top of capturing the complicated life of Marie Curie, it successfully examines the hardships that come with being a female scientist in early 1900s France. (FEA 4/5)

Review by FF2 associate Farah Elattar

Satrapi sets the scene by portraying “Maria Skłodowska” (Rosamund Pike) as an innovative scientist, scrambling for resources that a board of male superiors is hesitant about providing. Adamant about working alone, she finds it increasingly difficult to maintain a proper workspace and voices her concerns to the board, only to be stripped of lab access entirely. It is then that she meets “Pierre Curie” (Sam Riley), whose interest in her work leads to a partnership, first professionally then romantically. The film then goes on to explore the now-married pair’s discovery of two new elements, polonium and radium, which leads both to a plethora of achievements and awards, and to a life of illness and loss. 

Instead of following the typical linear structure of a biopic, Radioactive jumps back and forth in time, in order to show the consequences (both positive and negative) of Curie’s discoveries. This unconventional method successfully serves to remind the viewer that a major scientific discovery is bound to have both wondrous and disastrous uses by mankind. For example, while the pair announced their discovery to the university scientific board, the film cuts to 1957 in order to show a boy preparing to undergo radiotherapy — a treatment for cancer that was made possible by Curie’s work. Similarly, as Pierre accepts his Nobel Prize in Sweden, the film cuts to scenes preparing for the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Satrapi’s use of this method underscores the idea that one cannot tell the story of the Curie’s without examining its effects on the world. This is no “average” life, but one whose resonance will be felt for decades and centuries to come. 

Its main protagonist being a woman, Radioactive successfully shows how difficult it was to establish and maintain credibility in the male-dominated scientific world of the early 1900s. Marie Sklodowska found it difficult to have her voice heard, while Marie Curie, propelled by her partnership with Pierre, is able to access the resources she needs. Even then, the first Nobel Prize awarded to the couple was only in Pierre’s name until he filed a complaint to add Marie. Nevertheless, too busy with her work, Marie continues to be a trailblazer in the field and becomes the first woman Professor at the University of Paris upon her husband’s death. Despite her professional successes, as with many women in history, her personal life was brought to the public eye, and she was dubbed a “homewrecker” for having an affair with a married colleague. An angry mob, shown outside her house, reveals the extra scrutiny that women go through for acts that men can get away with unharmed. Despite all of this, Curie continues to do her work, unwilling to give up her life as a scientist. Satrapi brilliantly shows her resilience, contrasting moments of vulnerability with scenes showing her strength and ability to persevere despite others (even her sister), urging her to abandon her work and life in France. 

In essence, Radioactive is indeed a successful attempt by Marjane Satrapi to convey the complex life of a trailblazer in science — all within the bounds of a feature-length film.

© Farah Elattar (7/31/2020) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie working on an experiment.

Middle Photo: poster for Radioactive.

Bottom Photo: Rosamund Pike and Sam Riley at an event for Radioactive in 2019.

Photo Credits: Amazon Studios (2020)

Q: Does Radioactive pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

Yes. There are scenes between Marie and her sister where they discuss Marie’s life and future in Paris.

Farah Elattar

By Farah Elattar

Farah joined the FF2 Media team in January of 2018. She is a Philosophy major at Rutgers University with a minor in Women & Gender Studies, and a concentration on social justice, made possible through the Leadership Scholars Program at the Institute for Women’s Leadership. As an Egyptian woman, she sees film as a very important medium, through which the voices of the silent can be expressed. She believes that film can, and will, play an important role in changing global perspectives on problematic areas such as the Middle East which is often viewed as nothing but a conflict zone.

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