Run Time: 1 hour 49 minutes
Stars: Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Yvette Feuer, Aneurin Barnard
Writer: Jack Thorne
Director: Marjane Satrapi
Streaming on Amazon Prime
Tackling the life story of pioneering nuclear scientist Marie Curie, Rosamund Pike continues her recent explorations of tough-to-pin-down historic women — pithy females who tossed aside their cultures’ expectations and plunged stubbornly forward, either failing to hear the cries of objection or simply choosing to ignore them.
In A United Kingdom she played Ruth Williams, a London woman who defied the social norms of two countries when she married an African king in the late 1940s. She chain-smoked and growled her way through A Private War, painting an uncompromisingly coarse portrait of war correspondent Marie Colvin. And here in Radioactive, playing the Mother of the Atomic Age, Pike strikes yet another defiant pose as a woman who, despite her obvious brilliance, battles at every turn to make her mark in the male-dominated scientific world of the early 20th century.
It’s a startling performance that commands virtually every moment of the film’s run time, as Pike’s Curie runs into one institutional blockade after another.
Unmarried and fighting to keep her position at a Paris laboratory, in one early scene Curie storms into an all-male (of course) board meeting to demand more lab space — and ends up fired. Facing professional ruin, Pike’s face swims with conflicting emotions: fury, surprise, hurt, and dread fear. But even as her expressions flit from one state of mind to another, she seems to grow in stature to the point where the guys with the cigars — and we — begin to wonder if she’s going to leap at them from across the conference table.
So prickly is Pike’s Curie that we almost gasp in astonishment when she lowers her stoic resolve long enough — but just barely so — to fall in love with and marry Pierre Curie, an uncommonly open-minded fellow scientist (Sam Reilly, channeling the same suave charm that made him the perfect alt-world Mr. Darcy in 2016’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).
Iranian director Marjane Satrapi — Oscar-nominated for her animated film Persepolis — knows she’s got a good thing going in Pike. When’s she’s not simply turning the whole film over to her star she’s taking devilish delight in depicting the world’s turn-of-the-century radiation mania — depicting with dark glee such products as radioactive toothpaste and chewing gum. Of course, the fun is all over when Marie, Pierre, and their fellow scientists start coughing up blood, signaling the awful realities of unchecked radiation.
Screenwriter Jack Thorne (Wonder, The Aeronauts) makes the risky choice of repeatedly flash forwarding to the decades following Curie’s death, reminding us of the world her discoveries created, from the atomic bomb to radiation therapy to Chernobyl. Indeed, at times he literally injects Madame Curie herself into these scenes, a ghostly witness to her complicated legacy. It doesn’t always work — Curie’s life is compelling enough without resorting to a tricked-up narrative — but the ploy does serve to remind us that although the events here unfolded more than a century ago, some of the modern world’s most profound dilemmas harken back to that dusty, irradiated laboratory in pre-World War I Paris.
In any case, all is forgiven whenever Pike is on the screen. History is always more fun when filmmakers leave the rough edges intact, and Radioactive does just that — thanks mainly to the superb work of an actor who thrives on showing those edges in stark, supremely human, relief.
Featured image: Rosamund Pike in Radioactive (Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham; StudioCanal/Amazon Studios)
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