Radioactive – an artist’s view of love and death

The film Radioactive tells the story of Marie Curie, one of the world’s most famous and influential scientists. She is the woman who, along with her husband Pierre, effectively unlocked radioactivity. It’s not subject matter to be taken lightly.

Radioactive is compelling, very well acted, and, it has to be said, often slow moving. It’s beautiful to look at, and by the very nature of its subject matter, thought provoking and disturbing. It gives us a love story, but one that cannot be distanced from the fact that its main characters helped usher in an age where humanity has been placed in peril. The film tellingly captures the Curies’ ignorance of the side effects of their work by often showing us Marie in bed with a green-glowing vial of radium on her pillow.

This film is effectively the work of two graphic novelists. One directed the movie, and the other wrote and illustrated the book the film is based on.

The director is Marjane Satrapi, famous for Persepolis, her graphic novel of the Iranian Revolution, a book she also turned into a film.

The creator of the book is Lauren Redniss. She wrote and illustrated Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout. To research the book Redniss reportedly interviewed scientists and engineers, weapons specialists and atomic bomb survivors, and Curie’s own granddaughter. Her book tells both the love story of Marie and Pierre Curie, and the scientific story of how they discovered radium and polonium.  And, it reflects on the future applications of this research, be they military or medical. 

A page from Lauren Redniss’ novel, Radiation

All this, director Satrapi captures on screen. Her film is rich in visual detail and in finely composed images. The Curie laboratory looks authentic, as do all the costumes and scenery of late 19th and early 20th century Paris. 

With Rosamund Pike as Marie and Sam Riley as Pierre, Satrapi has two fine actors to give us the main story. Pike gives an Oscar-worthy performance. She shows us Marie to be intelligent, brave, and abrasively direct and stubborn. She is also loving. I thought the sparring (sometimes loving, sometimes not) between Pike and Riley was a highlight of the film.

It’s where Satrapi envisions the other elements (forgive the pun) of Redniss’ novel that the film leaves a traditional biography of a famous person. To delve into the impact of the Curies’ research, Satrapi presents a series of vignettes of the future: on board the Enola Gay; on the ground at Hiroshima; with a cancer patient about to receive radiotherapy; on a bomb testing site in Arizona; at Chernobyl. These scenes are shown in an almost fantastical way, and they give the film the sense of an essay or a piece of social commentary. 

You can’t help but wonder whether the film needed these scenes at all. I could imagine some cinema-goers feeling they distract from the story of the Curies, and are too obvious a point to make.

On balance, I ended up in favour of these scenes. Yes, they deal with destruction and death, but they are handled with care. They make sure cinema goers won’t be so caught up in the love story of Marie and Pierre that they forget what the Curies achieved in their work. And, you’d think that Satrapi wanted them in her film so that she was being faithful to Redniss’ book.

Radioactive is a serious look at a very serious subject. It’s not light entertainment and it’s not meant to be. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I recommend it.

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