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Unstable Elements

While the film Radioactive is competent enough, it tries desperately to mold Marie Curie’s life to fit modern acceptable narratives.

A still from the film "Radioactive", about the life of Marie Curie and starring Rosamund Pike. (Image: Amazon Prime)

Streaming Service: Amazon Prime
Year: 2020
MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating: 2 out of 5 reels

Author’s note: With movie theaters out of commission for the foreseeable future, I will be reviewing films and series available on streaming platforms. This will include a wide variety of options, including new stars and old favorites.

The story of Marie Curie was one of favorites as a budding, fifth-grade scientist; I remember reading her ValueTales biography constantly. Thus, I was excited when Amazon Prime announced a new biopic, titled Radioactive, of her starring Rosamund Pike and directed by Marjane Satrapi. While the film is competent enough, it tries desperately to mold Curie’s life to fit modern acceptable narratives. It is far better to let a person tell their own story and be content with the results.

The film begins as Marie Skłodowska stands before the University of Paris science faculty, all old white men with Snidely Whiplash mustaches, demanding more space for her laboratory work. This opening scene will be become the thematic center of the entire film. She does not beg or even ask. She demands what she needs. When Marie is inevitably denied, she must find other alternatives. A colleague and admirer of her work, Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), offers a partnership and place in his lab. At first, she is hesitant to accept any help. “I will not be your mistress,” she bluntly tells him mere days after they meet. When it becomes clear that Pierre is more attracted to her mind than her body, she agrees. Over the course of the next decades, the pair become the most famous duo in the scientific community, isolating multiple elements and discovering the fundamentals of all radioactive science. Despite her initial misgivings, Marie falls in love and marries Pierre, only to lose him to a tragic accident not long after. However great her love for science, her love for him was greater still.

While Curie’s story takes center stage, it is not the only narrative. Inter-spliced with her life are various flash forwards that look at the results of her work. There are of the benefits of radiation, including the first chemotherapy trials during the late 1950s. There are also the darker corners of atomic science, such as the nuclear weapons and the Chernobyl disaster. It is a potent reminder that one’s life touches so many others, and the world was forever affected by what she and Pierre did in their little lab.

According to nearly every account, the Curies had a fantastic marriage. For the most part, Satrapi celebrates this. There is a great scene that occurs shortly after their marriage, where Marie and Pierre strip naked and jump into a lake, swimming and basking in the sun like Adam and Eve. Cinematic moments that present marital erotic love as both exciting and holy are rare within 21st-century cinema, which makes it all the more refreshing.

Yet, in the #MeToo world, it is apparently impossible to portray a marriage without some semblance of patriarchal oppression—so Satrapi creates one. When Pierre and Marie are awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, Pierre suggests that he go alone to receive the prize since Marie is pregnant. She agrees. Later, when he returns, Marie accuses him taking credit for her accomplishments in a fiery speech that was featured prominently in the trailer. In reality, the Committee had initially only intended to give the prize to Pierre but included Marie after he protested. Neither Curie attended the ceremony due to their work, and eventually traveled to Sweden together to receive the medal two years later.

There’s no doubt that Marie experienced injustice in regard to her sex from the scientific community and society at large. However, by injecting that narrative into her marriage to prove the film’s liberal credentials, it smears the good name of Pierre and demonstrates a tremendous lack of respect towards its subject.

Another odd perceptive comes from the film’s understanding of religion. Strangely enough for a Polish woman working in France, there is no mention of Catholicism at all. Instead, religion is represented by the Spiritualist movement, where mediums held séances to communicate with the dead. Like alchemy before it, the Spiritualist movement tried to unify scientific theories with the metaphysical realm. One prominent example was Duncan MacDougall, a physician who claimed to prove the soul weighed 21 grams. Marie is rightly skeptical of these practitioners at first, but after the death of her husband, grief compels her to seek them out. Conveniently, the moment she is ready to believe, they cannot give a way for her to communicate with Pierre, and she promptly abandons the search. Sadly, she could have visited the much closer Catholic chapel and learned about the communion of saints. The dead are never gone, and we can have intimacy with them through prayer, both us for them, and them for us. The foolishness of the Spiritualists confirms her atheism, but it is a straw man.

Radioactive has a great deal going for it. The production design, costumes, and acting are stellar. Yet, it was disappointing how scene after scene Satrapi tried to force a story that was not there. Marie Curie was both a brilliant scientist and a passionate wife whose family would go on to produce five Nobel prizes. She deserves a film free of the oppressive constraints and biases of this current age.


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About Nick Olszyk 140 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you I really appreciate your approach … let the story be. Let the people be. Let history be.
    It is so tiring and discouraging to see everything fitted into a modernist mindset … it is part and parcel of cancelling culture and Truth. I look forward to more work from you.

  2. A few years ago, I read the biography of Marie Curie written by her daughter. It said that Marie grew up in a pious Catholic family in the Russian section of Poland. Marie’s mother was slowly dying of tuberculosis and the family prayed for a miracle. When the mother died, according to her daughter, Marie totally abandoned her faith. The book made no mention of any contact with Spiritualists, so I can’t say if that is historical. The daughter said that Marie was so afraid of death, that at the end of her life, when she was dying of the anemia caused by contact with radioactivity, they didn’t dare tell her she was dying, and certainly there was no suggestion that a priest come to give her Viaticum. So the absence of Catholicism in the movie corresponds to what Marie’s daughter wrote of her Mother.

    • Anne Marie,
      Thank you. That’s rather what I remembered about Marie Curie’s faith also.
      I watched the old Greer Garson film about her years ago and really enjoyed it. Later I read an actual biography and was a bit disappointed.

    • Curie’s biography reminds me of the Hollywood celebrity, and consort of the widowed Priscilla Presley, Michael Edwards who early abandoned religion when his Christian Scientist grandmother died after lingering without treatment from a fall. (“I saw grandma bleed to death and I lost my faith . . . . I blamed it all on religion.”)

      Looking back on his dissolute career he wrote the autobiographical “Priscilla, Elvis and Me” (1988). At the end of which is an epilogue, written so that people would know that he was not really stupid (or his words to that effect). He recalls in the epilogue that all he had ever really wanted was “serenity,” and he recalls from his adolescence his one moment of serenity, while visiting a church: “. . . Above the organ was a life-sized crucifix, and if I stared at Jesus long enough he came to life and smiled at me. I was filled with a warm feeling of love and understood the meaning of the words ‘My cup runneth over.’”

  3. To be a card-carrying member of “the-leftist-revolution-regressive-street-gang,” apparently you have to “assassinate” an innocent and defenseless victim, to prove your loyalty to the supreme willfulness of the gang.

    “Character assassination” is what the cowardly and deceitful Paul Elie just did to Flannery O’Connor, and he earned cash doing it…a “professional assassin.”

    Character assassination is what the screen writer and director and producer of this film do to Madame Curie’s husband: exactly what Paul Elie did to Ms. O’Connor.

    Paid assassins for the Jacobin mob.

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