Film Review: ‘Radioactive’

Marie Curie gets her overdue biopic in a century-spanning drama illuminated by Marjane Satrapi's creative quirks

Marjane Satrapi
Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Anya Taylor-Joy, Aneurin Barnard, Simon Russell Beale.

Running time: 103 MIN.

In 1895 Paris, Polish immigrant Maria Salomea Skłodowska (Rosamund Pike) was already headed toward a scientific breakthrough when she met fellow researcher Pierre Curie (Sam Riley). When the two physicists first collide, she’s a coiled mass of awkward tics. “Radioactive,” directed by Marjane Satrapi (“Persepolis,” “The Voices”), is the saga of how this blunt, fast-walking workaholic proved the existence of three things: radium, polonium (which she named for her home country) and love. Under her married name, Marie Curie, she became the first woman to win the Nobel prize, and less than a decade later, the first anyone to win two.

These are the atoms that energize a typical biopic, but thankfully Satrapi has a terrific flair for the macabre. Once Marie and Pierre’s meet-cute is checked-off and the triumphant couple has thumbed their noses at the establishment, Satrapi and screenwriter Jack Thorne (who penned the 19th-century meteorological adventure-romance “The Aeronauts”) are free to experiment with more daring narrative risks. After sparking audience interest with a closing-night slot at the Toronto Film Festival, Amazon Studios plans to release the film in 2020.

As “Radioactive” grapples with the repercussions of inventing a dangerously unstable nucleus that can both cure cancer and cause it, Satrapi collapses a century of innovation and destruction from the discovery of chemotherapy to Chernobyl into a flat timeline that Curie can see right through as though looking at an x-ray, even walking through a Russian hospital in 1986 to kiss a dying firefighter on the forehead. In those moments of stylistic imagination, the film glows.

Popular on Variety

Eight years after her death, the 1943 Greer Garson film “Madame Curie” earned seven Oscar nominations and popularized Curie’s reputation. Even today, Curie is continually voted the most inspirational woman in science. Yet, for the current generation, her most infamous onscreen depiction may well be as the love interest in the 1988 Australian kids comedy “Young Einstein,” starring Yahoo Serious. Curie has been overdue for a more current biopic, though so many female scientists inspired by her have been even more ignored — including her own daughter, Irene Joliet-Curie (played here by Indica Watson as a tot and Anya Taylor-Joy as an adult), who would win her own Nobel for developing artificial radioactivity the year before her mother’s death.

The Curies were, on average, a short-lived household thanks to their family business of fiddling with radiation. Visitors who want to see Marie’s original laboratory books must wear protective clothing, for their own safety. At first, Marie and Pierre were unaware of the dangers of, say, cuddling with a neon green vial in bed at night, an otherworldly shot of color in a Paris that’s otherwise naturalistically muddy and dim. (Though cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle does get to dabble in a picturesque tinge of silvery mercury tinting, plus a daguerreotype blur that rounds the edge of the frame — a mix of old and new that pairs well with composers Evgueni Galperine and Sacha Galperine’s score of skittering bleeps and bloops.)

“Mankind will derive more good than harm from the new discoveries,” pledged Pierre in Stockholm as he accepted the prize on the couple’s behalf. He insisted on shining a light on his wife’s contributions — initially the award was offered only to him — yet Satrapi has Marie give him a bitter slap when he returns home, before accepting her anger isn’t really directed at him.

Still, Pierre’s promise didn’t come true, especially if you were living in Hiroshima in 1945, devastation “Radioactive” shows from above without flinching. And lesser minds were even more ignorant of the dangers than the Curies. Radioactivity was a turn-of-the-century trend, and you can practically hear Satrapi’s wicked chuckle as she flashes vintage boxes of radioactive toothpaste, radioactive chocolates, and, for the truly foolhardy, radioactive cigarettes. By the time Satrapi jumps to a test site in 1960s Nevada so we can watch a plastic mannequin of a baby melt a crater in the ground, she must be howling. (It’s okay if you are, too.)

Curie wasn’t always logical. Later in life, she had an affair with Pierre’s married doctoral student Paul Langevin (Aneurin Barnard), which triggers mushroom cloud-sized scandal with French moralists (or perhaps just xenophobes) picketing to send her back to Poland. Yet as startling as it is to see the beloved scientist hated in her time, that we’re able to see this headstrong legend as a sexual being at all is a credit to how much Pike gradually humanizes her as a woman, while never pleading for our pity. (Something the real Curie would have loathed.) The globe has applauded Curie’s creation long after her death, polishing the marble image “Radioactive” works hard to scuff. Instead, says Satrapi, admire her passions — even when they were also the core of her doom.

Film Review: 'Radioactive'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations — closer), Sept. 6, 2019. Running time: 103 MIN.

Production: Director: Marjane Satrapi. Screenplay: Jack Thorne. Camera: Anthony Dod Mantle. Editor: Stéphane Roche. Music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine.

Crew: (U.K.) An Amazon Studios, StudioCanal presentation of a Shoebox Films, Working Title Films production. (Int'l sales: StudioCanal, Paris.) Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner. Executive producers: Paul Webster, Joe Wright, Amelia Granger, Ron Halpern, Dider Lupfer.

With: Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Anya Taylor-Joy, Aneurin Barnard, Simon Russell Beale.

More Film

  • The Batman Robert Pattinson

    'The Batman' Leaked Images and Video Reveal Batcycle, Full Batsuit

    A series of leaked images and a 12-second video taken from the set of “The Batman” reveal the first look at the Batcycle and the full Batsuit. The unauthorized images were taken during an outdoor location shoot for the film at the Glasgow Necropolis cemetery in Scotland, according to the caption accompanying the images on [...]

  • Barneys closing

    Barneys, Fabulous Department Store for Movie Stars, Dies at 97

    A few years ago, I found myself at the Barneys department store in Beverly Hills on Dec. 24, wandering around on the men’s floor. It was almost closing time, and there was something depressing about being at Barneys at dusk on the night before Christmas. The store was empty, almost ghost-like, except for another shopper, [...]

  • 'Wildland' Review: Sidse Babett Knudsen Is

    'Wildland': Film Review

    After the sudden death of her mother, an introverted teenager is taken in by an estranged female relative, who turns out to be the matriarch of a dangerous criminal family. If the essential logline of Danish director Jeanette Nordahl’s quietly tense debut “Wildland” sounds more than a little familiar, perhaps the same thought occurred to [...]

  • 30West Acquires Stake in U.K.’s Altitude

    30West to Acquire Stake in British Film Company Altitude

    30West is to acquire a significant minority stake in Altitude Media Group, the British film company led by Will Clarke and Andy Mayson. The move marks 30West’s second corporate investment after it took a stake in 2018 in U.S. film distributor Neon, whose Korean film “Parasite” won an Oscar for best picture – the first [...]

  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire

    'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' Cinematographer, Costume Designer on the 'Painterly' 18th-Century Look

    “Painterly” might be an overused term to describe a certain aesthetic of period cinematography, informed by candlelit interiors and sweeping outdoor compositions. But it seizes the essence of French writer-director Céline Sciamma’s deeply feminist 18th-century gay romance set on the coast of Brittany, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which debuted in theaters on Valentine’s [...]

  • 'Malmkrog' Review

    'Malmkrog': Film Review

    Since Cristi Puiu’s “Malmkrog” means to drown the viewer in a dense and arcane philosophical debate about Good and Evil, the nature of Christ, Europe and the direction of History, let’s add another strand to the discussion: how is cinema put to best use? It’s an especially pertinent question since Puiu’s always stunning use of [...]

  • Onward Animated Film 2020

    'Onward': Film Review

    Later this year  — Nov. 19, 2020, to be exact — will mark the 25th anniversary of the premiere of “Toy Story,” the first feature from Pixar. In 1995, that movie launched the digital-animation revolution, a paradigm shift that Pixar, for a long time, more or less owned. Yet as the company’s innovations evolved into [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content