This might sound funny coming from a film buff, but I’m kind of liking new releases going to video on demand. Even though streaming isn’t technically film, it’s allowing me to review new movies without the hassle of going to the theater, much as I like the collective viewing experience. Theaters are getting really expensive and I’m too short for those theater seats–they make me feel like Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann on Sesame Street.
Anyway, another film currently streaming is the ambitious but uneven Marie Curie biopic Radioactive, a Marjane Satrapi production starring Rosamund Pike. It first premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on September 6, 2019, made the rounds of the festival circuit, and had a formal premiere in London on March eighth of this year before its funneling into Amazon Prime’s streaming service this last Friday. There’s a lot to unpack here, so we’re going to jump right into this.
The film starts out in 1934 with Madame Curie (Rosamund Pike) at the end of her life. She’s gone to her office in her laboratory, which hums with activity, and unfortunately she barely settles into her tasks for the day before collapsing on the floor. The next thing she knows, she’s being wheeled down a hospital corridor watching the lights flash past.
Marie hates hospitals. She saw her mother die of tuberculosis in a hospital back home in Poland and was so traumatized that she won’t step foot in one. This time, however, she has no choice.
As often happens before death and in biopics, Marie’s life flashes before her eyes. We see her elbowed out of the lab she works at by scientists who won’t leave her equipment alone. Professor Lippman (Simon Russell Beale) doesn’t think her work has enough merit to warrant the respect of her colleagues.
Marie tries working in her room, but this is impractical because the space is tiny. Well, that and she almost sets her table on fire. Opportunity comes in the form of a rather cliched meet-cute when she literally bumps into Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), but there’s no time for chortling or smiling sheepishly. Marie’s got an appointment. She does, however, find him later at a bar where he’s watching a rather futuristic dancer twirling under colored lights.
Right off the bat, Marie and Pierre connect with each other. They’ve read each other’s papers and respect each other’s work. Pierre thinks Marie is brilliant, and he invites her to come work in his lab. Marie is reluctant at first because she doesn’t want to be a kept woman, but Pierre assures her it’s because he would like her to succeed.
After some resistance, Marie agrees to allow Pierre to help her. They have the meeting of the minds, and then some. This leads to marriage and a blissful honeymoon in the country, where the Curies skinny dip and lounge around on picnic blankets (there’s brief full-frontal nudity). It’s around this time that Marie discovers radium and radioactivity, which makes the couple instantly famous. And life gets even fuller when they have two daughters, Iréne and Éve. Pierre becomes a professor at Sorbonne University. The Curies win a Nobel Prize. Nothing stands in their way.
Well, almost nothing. Pierre and Marie both cough all over the place due to their constant exposure to toxic chemicals. A cab accidentally hits Pierre, who dies of his injuries. Marie now feels rootless and aimless, drowning her grief in a fling with Paul (Anuerin Barnard), one of her lab colleagues. People begin getting sick from radium. Marie’s reputation suffers.
However, this feisty woman claws her way to the surface, encouraged by her daughters, and she might just come out of her shell. There may even be another Nobel Prize in her future. Marie is Madame Curie. She’s a powerhouse.
What did I like about the film? Rosamund Pike, who’s a beautiful actress, puts in a gutsy performance, although her chemistry with Sam Riley is polite at best. The movie has decent character progression. It shows a woman who’s very insular and afraid of using her abilities to help others because of what they may say or do. Pierre has to convince her at several points to let her guard down so that her goals can be achieved. Iréne talks Marie into setting up portable X-ray machines in field hospitals so soldiers get proper treatment for their injuries.
Each time Marie is amazed at how much good her discoveries have done for mankind. I like that the film acknowledges the gravity of the Curies’ work and their potential adverse consequences while also emphasizing their innumerable benefits.
I also like that the film, while feminist, doesn’t show hatred of men. There are plenty of men that Marie depends on for help, and in the end all she really wants is to be counted as an equal. And she doesn’t blame men for the obstacles she overcame over the course of her career. Marie tells Iréne late in the film that a lack of proper equipment was more of a problem than her femininity. That’s a refreshing position for a current film to take, especially nowadays when certain women like making men into personae non gratae simply for existing.
As to what I didn’t care for, that boils down to one thing: Continuity. The film is a typical biopic. In a way it reminds me of Walk the Line or Bohemian Rhapsody or something of that nature, only instead of scoring a big hit and going on tour, we see montages of the Curies suddenly gaining noteriety after they announce their findings on radioactivity. Then we see a montage of press coverage, and bingo, they’re big stars, with fans asking for autographs. There’s also a plethora of odd merchandising. Yeah, this movie likes the montage.
However, it gets weird. Throughout the movie, the bulk of which is, again, told in flashback, there are periodic vignettes of where radiation has been used since the Curies. A little boy becomes the first cancer patient to be given radiation therapy in 1957. A crowd gleefully gathers to watch an atomic bomb testing in the middle of the Nevada desert in 1961. A firefighter ventures into a reactor during the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986.
All of this happens at random spots with no transitions. Viewers literally go from seeing Marie sit thoughtfully in her lab to watching a mannequin melt from a bomb blast. I get that these tableaux are to give the film historical context, but the way it’s accomplished is disorienting, as well as assigning consequences to the Curies’ work that they would never have dreamed of in 1897, let alone felt guilty for.
The film also tries to work in some metaphysics. Sometimes it succeeds, like when Pierre explains the Curies’ radium extraction methods and we see molecules attaching to atoms. For people who aren’t well-versed in scientific lingo, the animation is helpful. At other times, this angle is simply weird. When Pierre and Marie make love we see outlines of their bodies floating up towards the moon, which becomes an atom. I half-expected to hear Katy Perry’s “E.T.” playing over that scene. The oddest part of all is when Marie lays in bed after Pierre’s death. She sees his blood become radium on the pavement with his pallbearers all in glowing capes like an Edwardian Tron.
Plus there’s more than a little revisionist history going on here. Marie was nicer than she’s made out to be in the film. The real Pierre and Marie didn’t have nearly the contentious relationship as the film portrays; that was added for dramatic effect. This is an understandable and not uncommon characteristic in biopics. On the plus side, it may make people curious. The little I’ve seen so far of the real Curies is fascinating, and I look forward to finding out more.
Sometimes, though, revision is simply dishonest. It irked me that Radioactive portrayed Americans cavalierly dropping atomic bombs on innocent Japanese people during the Second World War. On the ground the scene is a happy, bright, colorful city, where people buy fruit and flowers and men reading newspapers smile at children playing in the street.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. As I’ve written on here before, Japan and Germany had atomic bomb programs in the works, and as far as the United States was concerned, we weren’t about to let our enemies acquire these weapons first. The film insults the time period and the people involved, not to mention it feeds our popular culture’s widespread ignorance of history.
Radioactive doesn’t quite realize its full potential. Although it isn’t nearly as hideous as some critics have made it out to be, its good aspects are overshadowed by front-loading, strange imagery, and inappropriate tweaking.
Okay, everyone, I’ll be taking a break for the next ten days or so because my son’s thirteenth birthday is coming up this week, plus I’m going to get a jump on August before school starts. Even if it is distance learning (Argh. I want to go back to work. It’s been way too long.), it’s still school. Anyway, here are next month’s blogathons:
If anyone is interested in these events, please see these fine folks:
- Regency Woman at Musings Of An Introvert
- Michaela at Love Letters To Old Hollywood (Esther Williams and Van Johnson blogathons)
- Maddy at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films
- Chris at Blog of the Darned
- Virginie at The Wonderful World of Cinema
There’s going to be a lot of stuff on the docket besides blogathons, not the least of which is my mini film fest, “Five Days At the Fair,” which I cooked up because of so many fairs and festivals being cancelled this year. It’ll start on August 20th and end on the 24th, so I hope for the pleasure of your company. Nachos and deep-fried Snickers bars are optional. Thanks for reading, all, and see ya on August 5th with a new “Page To Screen.” Have a good one…
Radioactive is free to stream for Amazon Prime customers.