Melodrama trumps science in Radioactive portrayal of Marie Curie

August 5, 2020, 12:08PMNuclear News

Marie Curie has been quoted as saying, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.” We can only wish that the creators of Radioactive, a feature-length biopic released on Amazon Prime Video on July 24, had increased their own understanding of the applications of nuclear technology before making the film. While celebrating Curie as an uncompromising woman of science, they present a curious mix of respect and fear, explicitly linking radiation and nuclear technology to death and destruction.

Amazon bills the film as “a bold, visionary depiction” and “an exploration of the transformative effects of how Curie’s work has impacted the defining moments of the 20th century.” The dual aims—depicting Curie’s life and linking her to events that occurred decades after her death—strain plausibility and invite the viewer to share the filmmakers’ ambivalence about the legacy of Curie’s work.

The film is based on a graphic novel by Lauren Redniss, published in 2010. The film adaptation was directed by Marjane Satrapi, herself the graphic novelist behind Persepolis. The score of Radioactive, largely set in a minor key and punctuated with sonar pings and a fire engine’s wail, creates a sonic atmosphere of otherworldly emergency that amplifies the effect of the striking and at times fanciful cinematography.

Fact vs. fiction: When it comes to the science, viewers will hear several short statements of fact with the bland accuracy of a middle-school textbook. Yet the accuracy of some statements should not lull the viewer into believing that the picture is an accurate representation of the life of the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, and the only person to receive a Nobel Prize in both physics and chemistry.

The film’s landing page on Amazon Prime proclaims it is “the incredible, true story of Marie Curie and her Nobel Prize–winning work that changed the world.” Amazon offers a link to lesson plans for teachers developed for release with the film and does not repeat that claim of truth, stating, “Radioactive is a biopic and not a nonfiction biography. A biopic is a dramatization of the real-life events of a person’s life. The writer, director, and actors in Radioactive use artistic license to interpret Marie Curie’s story—including the timeline, events, and characterizations of people represented in the film.”

To Amazon’s credit, the lesson plans direct teachers to balanced, reputable sources for more information. In fact, a lesson plan on science and scientific inquiry points teachers to Navigating Nuclear, the K–12 education program developed by the American Nuclear Society in cooperation with Discovery Education.

A still image from Radioactive shows Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie at work in her lab.

Flash forward: The film opens with Curie, played by Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl), collapsing as she begins a day’s work in her laboratory at age 66. As she is taken to a hospital, near death, the film cuts to flashbacks of Curie’s first days as a student in Paris in the 1890s. Flashbacks—and their back-to-the-future twin, flash forwards—free the filmmakers from the constraints of time, and their juxtaposition with scenes from Curie’s work in the lab shapes the narrative. Occasional dream sequences permit more artistic license.

The film uses flash forwards to link Marie and Pierre Curie’s discoveries to nuclear technologies developed decades later, and images of disaster, destruction, and fear suggest that blame, not credit, is being assigned to the pair.

As the film portrays Pierre Curie (played by Sam Riley) delivering a lecture after he, Marie Curie, and Henri Becquerel were awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, stylized scenes dramatizing the dropping of Little Boy on Hiroshima in 1945 are interposed with a speech in which Pierre declares, “I am one of those who believe, with Nobel, that mankind will derive more good than harm from these discoveries.”

A depiction of the Chernobyl accident in 1986 intersects with shots of a personal “meltdown” as Marie Curie struggles with grief and the burden of press scrutiny after the death of her husband, Pierre.

One of the more fantastical sequences in the film begins with Marie Curie standing at the front of a lecture hall at the Sorbonne. “I want to tell you about radium,” she says to her students. “It does not behave as it should.” The film then cuts to Nevada in 1961 for a dramatized nuclear bomb test, and viewers watch a family of mannequins melt into the ground as their elaborate “doom town” is destroyed in the blast (which, incidentally, would not have used radium). Frequent cuts between the test site and Curie in Paris, caring for her daughters and working in her lab, suggest she was careless, indifferent, or complicit. Before the bomb explodes, for example, we see Curie set up equipment in her lab that suddenly releases small amounts of pressurized gas and liquid, causing Curie to exclaim “Oh no, no, no!” before she mutters to her colleagues, “Sorry everyone. I do apologize.”

Even while the film acknowledges the therapeutic tools of nuclear medicine, the choice of imagery engenders fear and mistrust. After Pierre Curie says, with fervor, “I can feel our work glowing out. I can feel it changing the world,” a flash forward takes us not to the precision treatments of today but to 1957 as a wary young boy is strapped down in front of a linear accelerator for experimental cancer treatment.

Woman, scientist, and mother: Making the film’s grim perception of radiation explicit, Curie is depicted advising her daughter Irène (who would go on to win a Nobel Prize with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie) to abandon a career in science.

“As exciting as it seems, radiation is not safe,” says Curie, as played by Pike, before going on to say that she had spent her entire life “surrounded by death and radiation”. . . and “they’ve brought me very little happiness. I want better for you.” Given that mother and daughter collaborated in the lab for years, it’s probably safe to say that those words belong to the filmmakers, not Curie.

Radioactive does not shy away from mentioning the xenophobic and sexist treatment Curie received following press accounts of her affair with physicist Paul Langevin four years after her husband’s death. While celebrating the self-assurance with which Curie conducted her life and work, and arguably presenting a fuller portrait of a woman who could be passionate about more than science, the filmmakers may once again be taking artistic liberties. Pike’s Curie is outspoken and unapologetic, a striking contrast to the woman described as “quiet, dignified, and unassuming” in a biographical account from the Nobel Prize organization. While Curie was undoubtedly bold and determined in the laboratory, have the makers of Radioactive applied 21st-century assumptions of what it means to be a bold, assertive woman to Curie, with anachronistic results?

From the golden age of Hollywood: Greer Garson was nominated for a best actress Oscar for a markedly different portrayal of Marie Curie in the 1943 film Madame Curie, based on the book of the same title by Curie’s daughter Ève. Garson’s Curie is a young woman who loves “physics and mathematics and Poland,” and who, while a driven scientist, is unfailingly polite, whether at tea parties or standing before the French Academy of Sciences.

While Madame Curie avoids any whiff of scandal and downplays the symptoms of radiation exposure suffered by the Curies, it gives much more time to science than does Radioactive. Take, for example, Curie’s recognition that pitchblende must contain an unknown element with more radioactivity than two of its known constituents, uranium and thorium. In Radioactive, that realization, which set the Curies on an arduous four-year process to isolate tiny quantities of polonium and radium from four tons of pitchblende, is portrayed in just over one minute, with about two more minutes given to an explanation of the process. Madame Curie, by contrast, takes the viewer on a trip to Becquerel’s lab to view his photographic plates in situ before devoting a full nine minutes to Curie’s process of deduction in a fascinating glimpse of 19th-century science in action.

Together, the two films will frustrate a viewer looking for the truth about Curie’s life. Accepting that both films take license with the details, the contradictions leave us to wonder: Just how did Pierre and Marie meet and decide to marry? Did Marie need Pierre’s encouragement, as in Madame Curie, or was she entirely self-driven, as in Radioactive? Did the pair struggle with four tons of pitchblende by themselves, or did they share that labor with assistants? Did Marie Curie speak before all-male panels of academicians with defiance or with restrained courtesy? After watching either film, the viewer will likely want to turn to an authoritative biography for answers.

Related Articles

The Mother of Radiation: Marie Curie

November 7, 2018, 7:57AMANS Nuclear CafeKaitlyn Butler

The start of Marie Curie's story isn't like most of the other scientists that  had made a name for themselves throughout history, mostly because she was a grown woman by the start of the 20th...