Saddled with an English-language title that evokes a dust-caked educational video for classroom use only, “Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge” doesn’t have to clear a very high bar to be more entertaining than it sounds — and so it does, albeit none too smoothly. Instead, Marie Noelle’s evidently impassioned portrait of the trailblazing Polish-French physicist and chemist emerges as an odd blend of, well, formulae, following a starchy biopic pattern one minute and giving in to impressionistic abstraction the next. Neither approach does much to make the subject’s monumental scientific achievements pop dramatically, which was always going to be a tall order. That her love life is rather more engagingly presented is perhaps inevitable, though having fought hard to be judged by male peers on her work rather than her womanhood, Curie wouldn’t be thrilled to hear it.
“We should be less curious to know people, and more curious to know their thoughts,” says Curie — played with staunch dedication by Polish actress Karolina Gruszka — near the film’s close, as she accepts her history-making second Nobel Prize in 1911. The viewer can, by this point, understand such a position: Much of “The Courage of Knowledge” is concerned with the agitating effect of petty personal gossip and patriarchal spite on her career and psyche. Still, it’s an ironic punchline of sorts in a biopic that lingers on intimate details of Curie’s private life, while never quite getting to grips with her most complex thoughts. If there even is a way to build a narrative around the theory of radioactivity, it’s hard to blame Noelle for not attempting it: She and spry cinematographer Michal Englert largely convey Curie’s theoretical musings in the film as shimmering reveries of electric-blue light and shadow.
Unlike MGM’s porridgey, decidedly pre-woke 1943 picture “Madame Curie” — in which science took a distant back seat to Greer Garson’s moist-eyed emoting — Noelle’s film isn’t much interested in Curie’s devoted marriage to fellow physicist Pierre (Charles Berling), whose accidental death occurs near the outset of proceedings, and who sporadically appears as a manner of hallucinated guardian angel. Rather, Noelle and Andrea Stoll’s screenplay charts the resilient widow’s subsequent struggle to assert herself as an independent leader in her field — overturning the chauvinistic assumption in France’s all-male Academy of Sciences that she was a secondary contributor to her husband’s discoveries, rather than an equal collaborator. One colleague who believes in her in Paul Langevin (a charismatic Arieh Worthalter), a married liberal whose kindness and admiration eventually take a romantic turn, initiating an affair that scandalizes the admittedly pretty scandal-deprived world of radium research.
Even in the film’s most melodramatic interludes, with only the essential academic details to work with, Gruszka’s reserved, intelligent performance does a fine job of projecting the stern intellect and unwavering seriousness of conviction that ultimately made a mockery of Curie’s archaic detractors. The consistency of her presence stands in contrast to her director’s restless, fluttering command of tone, which nonetheless doesn’t feel entirely haphazard: As the mood and aesthetic switch from florid to frosty, with Bruno Coulais’s busy score racing to keep track, one senses Noelle’s style stretching, with mixed success, to define Marie Curie herself as something of a polymath. “My beaming radium queen,” Langevin addresses her at one point — not the most apposite of descriptions, perhaps, but “The Courage of Knowledge” at least goes some way towards brightening the worthy, colorless genius of a million history textbooks.