Radioactive stars Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie, scientist and Nobel laureate

Rosamund Pike in Radioactive. Picture: StudioCanal
Rosamund Pike in Radioactive. Picture: StudioCanal

Radioactive, (M, 110 minutes)

3 stars

In my final year of high school, the theme for English was Commitment. Among the books we studied that illustrated this were Schindler's List, Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory - and Robert Reid's biography of scientist Marie Curie. I don't recall all the details of the last book, but Curie was certainly depicted as being dedicated almost to the point of obsession with her work and it eventually killed her. If that's not commitment, I don't know what is.

This was quite some years ago but I was reminded of it while at Dendy watching Radioactive, adapted from a biographical graphic novel by Laura Redniss (which I haven't read). It's a decent biopic, well acted, well made and informative, but perhaps because of its subject, it feels a little remote at times.

Curie was a remarkable figure. She was the first person and (so far) the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice as well as being the only person to win in two scientific fields. In 1903 she won the Physics prize with her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity. Becquerel is not mentioned in this film but one detail it shows is correct: initially Marie was not mentioned in the Nobel citation and Pierre had to fight to have her included. In 1911 Marie Curie won the Chemistry prize for her work discovering and investigating radium and polonium. She coined the term "radioactivity".

In Radioactive, Warsaw-born scientist Maria Sklodowska (Rosamund Pike) is working in Paris but finds it hard to get space and funding for her work. Both her sex and her somewhat curt manner seem to be problems. She "meets cute" with fellow scientist Pierre Curie (Sam Riley) who offers her a place to work - and, soon enough, a partnership, with them being both colleagues and spouses. Two daughters and some major discoveries result from the union of Pierre and (as she becomes) Marie Curie but eventually tragedy comes and Curie's life begins to unravel. She still has her work, but at great cost to her health.

The film has some interesting byways - Pierre's interest in spiritualism and Marie's scepticism, for example - and becomes more dynamic in the latter half...

One problem with a film of this kind is that the scientific aspects can be both esoteric (to those not well versed in them) and often tedious (crushing materials in a bucket and lab work aren't terribly interesting to watch).

Iranian director and graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and screenwriter Jack Thorne (Wonder) try to compensate for this in various ways - montages being a classic device (they don't just have to be used in sports movies' training sequences). There are also flashforwards showing applications and results of the Curies' work, both humanitarian - treating cancer - and deadly (the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, the 1986 Chernobyl accident).

And there are dream sequences as well as the not unfamiliar framing device of the elderly Curie recalling her life. It keeps things interesting, if a little disjointed at times.

The film's treatment of the Curies' children is fairly cursory, possibly reflecting the couple's priorities.

Radioactive has some interesting byways - Pierre's interest in spiritualism and Marie's scepticism, for example - and in some ways becomes more dynamic in the latter half, when Curie faces scandal (over an affair with a colleague) and finds a new purpose during World War I.

Pike - so effective as the wife in Gone Girl - manages to keep Curie interesting and sympathetic even when she's at her most abrasive, though a certain distance remains. While this isn't the definitive Marie Curie film, it's certainly a good introduction to her.

This story Biopic solid but lacks chemistry first appeared on The Canberra Times.