Revisionist version pioneering physicist’s life

Revisionist version pioneering physicist’s life Rosamund Pike stars as Marie Curie in Radioactive


Camille Paglia once said: “There’s no female Mozart because there’s no female Jack the Ripper.” The comment was inaccurate but typical of her penchant for sensationalism. (I liked Julie Birchill’s comment: “The ‘g’ is silent in Paglia. It’s the only thing about her that is.”)

Something else that’s often said to be in short supply – again inaccurately – is female inventers. That’s why we should champion the ones we have, especially those like Marie Curie, who’s celebrated in this biopic.

Greer Garson played her in 1943 in a film directed by Mervyn LeRoy called, simply, Marie Curie. Here, more fittingly, a woman is behind the camera, the French-Iranian director Marjane Satrapi. Satrapi likes directing films based on graphic novels (check out Persepolis and Chicken with Plums). She does so again here, though she hasn’t written this one, unlike the other two.

It’s narrated in flashback. There are some disconcertingly prescient  flashforwards as well (to Hiroshima and Chernobyl ) and also a use of Satrapi’s familiar animation.

Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie is spikily effective.  Satrapi said: “She has eyes like razor blades and a smile like sunshine.”  Gone Girl  isn’t totally ‘gone’.

Some parts of the script are didactic and some patronising. Neither do I think it was wise to portray Curie as a crusader for sexual liberation. She acquires the tag after her husband is trampled to death by a galloping horse and she begins a relationship with a married man.

She was also castigated on racist grounds – she was Polish, but lived mainly in Paris – and even anti-semitic ones (despite not being Jewish).

And she was criticised for exposing people to radioactivity. The nucleus she invented caused cancer as well as curing it. She herself was the main victim of this.

Her main fight, though, was against the prevailing chauvinism of the time. The Nobel Prize she won was originally only awarded to her husband Pierre (Sam Riley). He insisted on having her included in it. She was eventually given a second Nobel Prize. Her daughter would go on to win one as well (for inventing artificial radioactivity).

“I have been haunted my entire life trying to understand the impossible,” she declared. She had a fear of hospitals caused by the early death of her mother but didn’t let this deter her from her research. Her seismic breakthrough came when she isolated radioactive isotopes to create polonium and radium. She named the former after her native country.

The script is written by Jack Thorne. He also penned The Aeronauts, another film about a pioneering woman. I praised it here recently. This is less satisfactory. The flashbacks and flashforwards detract from one’s involvement in the plot. A more linear approachwould have been preferable.

Curie had a great mind – we could do with her to fight the coronavirus – but Pike’s claims to iconic status for her are sometimes a bit too strident. Messages are better when they unfold rather than being pushed at you.

Good ***