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.
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.