Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Satrapi’s Radioactive

Marie Curie and her husband-partner Pierre named Polonium after her native homeland, Poland. She never forgot where she came from—nor did France’s Dreyfus-era press. Their scientific discoveries changed the world, but it would also be the death of them both. That is the price of progress in Marjane Satrapi’s Radioactive, which premieres this Friday on Amazon.

Marie Sklodowska (born “Maria”) is brilliant, but she does not suffer fools gladly or mince her words. She has no illusions why the Parisian scientific community allows her inadequate resources. Of course, it does not help that she constantly calls out Prof. Gabriel Lippmann and his university colleagues for their sexism. Help arrives from an unexpected quarter: Pierre Curie, who is also an establishment outsider, but much more resourceful.

Initially, he proposes a collaboration, but she is skeptical. However, she is eventually won over by his intelligence and respect, both professionally and romantically. Together they discover the new elements radium and polonium, as well as the phenomenon called radiation. It will be Pierre who shows mysterious signs of sickness first. However, Madame Curie will have dramatic second and third acts.

is adapted from Lauren Redniss’s illustrated biography, so it is somewhat surprising Satrapi, the graphic novelist of Persepolis, did not try to realize bigger and trippier visuals for Radioactive. Frankly, her cinematic canvas feels weirdly small in scope, despite the occasional historical vignettes illustrating the mixed legacy of the Curies’ discoveries (the Enola Gay flying over Hiroshima, a cancer patient receiving an early form of radiation treatment). (Actually, the legacy is even more mixed than Jack Thorne’s screenplay let’s on—just ask anyone descended from the Marines slated for the amphibious assault on Japan.)

On the positive side of the ledger, the film definitely captures Madame Curie’s intelligence and resilience, as well as the complicated nature of her forceful personality. Rosamund Pike excels at portraying her prickliness, but she also forges some rather touching chemistry with Sam Riley as the buttoned-down Monsieur Curie. In fact, Riley’s sensitive, understated portrayal nicely compliments Pike, as she stares daggers at the inferior minds surrounding them.

If we could average the aesthetics of Radioactive and Michael Almereyda’s Tesla
, it would be a wild ride, but an accessible one. It sounds ironic, but Radioactive feels a little too safe. Nevertheless, it is a polished period production, featuring two excellent lead performances. It is a nice film—not as haunting as Satrapi’s Persepolis and Chicken and Plums or as eccentric as The Voices, but nice and solidly grounded in history and science. Respectfully recommended as a possible weekend stream, Radioactive premieres this Friday (7/24) on Amazon Prime.