Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Director: Marjane Satrapi
‘Radioactive’ is the story of Marie Skłodowska Curie (played by Rosamund Pike) – the twice Nobel Prize-winning scientist (awarded in the fields of both Physics and Chemistry) – who, along with husband Pierre Curie (Sam Riley) discovered the property of radioactivity and then went on to discover radium and polonium. Proximity to their discovery (Curie would keep a radioactive sample in a small glass bottle in her pocket) progressively damaged their health, eventually killing Marie Curie from an associated condition in 1934. Before their deaths, both she and Pierre realised that their work could be used to not only save lives but to also destroy them.
Satrapi’s film ‘Radioactive’ is far more than just story of the Curie’s prize-winning discoveries. It is a mighty romance that additionally captures the story of Pierre Curie, a man strong enough to ignore peer approval. Firstly, Pierre Curie offered this contentious Polish woman a space in his laboratory when doors in other Paris institutions were being slammed in her face … and then, far more bravely still, his heart. The rest, as they say, is history. We all know that in 1903 Pierre Curie and physicist Henri Becquerel were nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics and that Pierre refused to accept the prize unless Marie was rightfully listed with them. Thus, with Pierre’s ongoing love and support, Marie became the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize that was her due.
To the astonishment of the government, the business sector, and friends alike Marie and Pierre never patented their breakthroughs, so as to allow other scientists to benefit from their discoveries without hindrance. Further, Marie gave much of her first Nobel Prize away and insisted that monetary gifts and awards be given to the scientific institutions she was affiliated with rather than herself.
After the death of her beloved Pierre, the lonely Curie embarked on an affair with the married scientist Paul Langevin. Were the reverse to have occurred, no Parisian eyelid would have batted but because Marie was both ‘foreign’ and female, public opinion swung and she was once more on the outside; sniffed at by the male scientific community, abused by the public, defamed by the press, and again having those doors slammed in her face.
At this same time Marie was awarded her second Nobel Prize – this time in Chemistry – for the discovery of the elements Radium and Polonium. Though told by the board of the Nobel Prize Committee to not come in person to receive her prize, always true to her confrontational nature Marie defied the request for her 'no-show' and insisted on receiving her award in person.
When World War One broke out Curie offered to melt down her Nobel Prize medals so the gold could be donated to the war effort. With her daughter Irène (Anya Taylor-Joy), she outfitted eighteen portable X-ray stations that could treat wounded soldiers on the front lines, at times operating and repairing the machines herself. She also established 200 more permanent X-ray posts during the war.
Sadly, for all her hard work and heroism, as many people loathed Marie Curie as admired her. It is a rumour of history that she had undiagnosed autism and this may have accounted for her fierce independence, dogged determination and her ability to unknowingly incite hostility in others by unintentionally offending them. Quite obviously, it did not hinder her brilliance.
Fittingly in 1995, in tribute to their brilliance, Marie and Pierre Curie’s bodies were transferred to the Paris Panthéon. Their remains are sealed in lead-lining because of the dangerously high levels of detectable radioactive contamination they exhibit. Likewise, Marie’s personal and scientific papers are kept in lead-lined boxes and may only be handled by people wearing protective clothing.
Extraordinary, multi-faceted and defiant, I am sure ‘Radioactive’ is just a glimpse of the remarkable woman who was Marie Skłodowska Curie.