Banish the dull images of test tubes and musty lecture halls when considering Radioactive (available on Amazon Prime starting July 24th). The biopic traces the career trajectory of Madame Marie Curie (a magnificent Rosamund Pike), the Polish immigrant born Maria Salomea Skłodowska who became the first person — and the only woman — to win two Nobel prizes. She shared the first in 1903, for discovering radium and polonium (named after her native country), with her French husband and fellow physicist Pierre Curie (Sam Riley). And the historical drama would be a dutiful thing, indeed, if it merely ticked off a list of Marie’s accomplishments, including being the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris.
Pike is having none of that — her performance as the headstrong Marie feels electro-charged. The same sparks run through the direction of Marjane Satrapi, who knows how to energize screen biography; just watch 2007’s Persepolis, the animated film that she co-directed that’s based on her own graphic novel about growing up in Iran under the Shah. Working from a script that Jack Thorne (The Aeronauts) and drawing from Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by fellow writer-artist Lauren Redniss, Satrapi whizzes around from present to future to show the major benefits of isolating radioactive isotopes to treat cancer. Such experiments came with risks: Marie died of exposure to radiation in 1934 at age 66. But Satrapi finds time to show the destructive force of radium in the bombs that fell on Hiroshima in 1945 and the lives lost due to the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Marie could never have known of these events, and some have faulted the filmmaker for dragging them into her story and breaking the narrative flow. Fair enough. But by thrusting Marie into the continuing repercussions of her discovery, Radioactive creates something refreshingly untamed.
The film’s effectiveness owes much to Pike’s elemental performance. In the Paris of 1895, when Marie meets Pierre, this fiercely independent scientist determined not to be bypassed for her gender, initially spurns his offers of assistance. She even rejects his marriage proposal before he offers it. But their attraction truly is chemical — and, hey, they both like nude swimming. Pike and Riley, so good as Joy Division’s lead singer Ian Curtis in the biopic Control, make this meeting of the minds sexy (something Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon failed to manage in Hollywood’s stolid version of their story in 1943’s Madame Curie). Pierre’s accidental death in 1906, when he slipped under a horse-drawn cart and a wheel fractured his skull, devastated Marie. But it didn’t slow her scientific drive or the strict eye she kept on their two daughters: Eve (Cara Bossom), who later wrote an acclaimed biography of her mother; and Irene (Anya Taylor-Joy) who also studied radioactivity with her husband Frederic Joliot, each receiving Nobel prizes for their work. The scenes of Marie and Irene hauling X-ray machines to mobile field-hospitals during the first World War suggest a feminism in the blood that merits its own film.
Still, Marie’s fame did not save her from scandal. Her affair with married doctoral student Paul Langevin (Aneurin Barnard), a friend to Marie and her late husband, had Parisian crowds screaming insults in the streets and demanding her deportation to Poland. Pike rides the waves of Marie’s galvanic life swings with extraordinary skill; the actor, who won an Oscar nomination for 2014’s Gone Girl, continuously defies expectations. Never mind the curveballs that Radioactive throws audiences on its defiantly unconventional journey into a defiantly unconventional life. Maria Salomea Skłodowska Curie has been done proud.