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“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. 
Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
Marie Curie

Radioactive offers an inventive spin on the bio-pic as it follows Marie Curie’s impact on science and the repercussions of her work decades later.

Chemical Reactions

Marie at work
Marie at work

In the afterglow of academic science and history classes, people like Marie Curie are quickly, tidily boxed away based strictly on their main claim to fame. Their story loses its humanity. Their world of setbacks, prejudices and challenges are swept away and forgotten about. If they’re lucky, like Marie, they get some fresh time in the limelight as fodder for inside jokes on shows like The Big Bang Theory.

For Marie, it was her work in chemistry and science, most notably her work with uranium, polonium and radium — and her coining the term “radioactive” — that took her career to unprecedented heights. Not one, but two Nobel Prizes. And a scientific breakthrough that is very much at play all around the world to this day. Alas, that work also contributed to her death at the age of 66.

This movie brings the full humanity back to Marie’s story. And, as presented by director Marjane Satrapi, it’s a story artfully told. Satrapi, an Academy Award nominee for her semi-autobiographical animated feature Persepolis, merges her artistic sensibilities with history to present a biographical account that steers clear of standard paint-by-numbers storytelling and — rather surprisingly, given the tragic possibilities — also steers clear of sentimentality. With a screenplay by Jack Thorne (The Aeronauts) that’s based on a book by Lauren Redniss, it’s a smart movie that suitably matches the smarts of its subject.

Sure, the romance between Marie Sklodowska (Rosamund Pike, A Private War) and Pierre Curie (Sam Riley, Maleficent) is abrupt, but it’s a miraculous affair of fate. The two meet in a not-so-cute fashion, but they balance each other out as their two great minds make each other better. Her science, his lab; it’s an atomic partnership formed in elemental heaven. There’s an artful shorthand to their romance that helps this 109-minute whirlwind stay on course. There’s a lot of ground to cover.

Bohemian Ore

That ground includes the expected. Stodgy codgers coldly dismissing Marie. A cruel twist of fate as a horrible accident brings the romance between Marie and Pierre to an end as abrupt as its start. Of course, there’s also some drama thrown in around the Nobel Prize and how the recognition is shared.

But, as Marie and Pierre advance their studies and experiments, a twist is thrown into the works. This historical account uses flash forwards to explore future history and where Marie’s work will take the world. Hiroshima in 1945. Cancer treatments in the 1950s. Atomic bomb tests in Nevada during the 1960s. Then there was the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

Even as she walked the earth, Marie was both lionized and demonized. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize (the only woman to be awarded the Nobel in two different sciences) and the first female Sorbonne science professor. And yet, some derided her as a dirty Pole who invented a poison. Charlatans used her science to perform trickery during séances; stagecraft designed to do nothing more than bilk money out of the gullible. Even 100 years ago, marketers were quick to jump on any bandwagon that could bring in a buck and — with radioactivity all the rage — all manner of goods, including smelling salts, cigarettes and even Broadway shows, looked to radiation for inspiration.

Then there was World War I and Marie’s largely underappreciated efforts on the frontlines as she introduced portable X-ray equipment to help reduce amputations (used in response to even minor conditions like sprained ankles) in favor of other treatments.

That’s quite a full life. One, however, which arguably brought Marie little joy. As Radioactive sets it up, young Marie was traumatized by her mother’s death. And it didn’t get much easier from there. That kind of life story puts those great historical quotes in perspective, as when Marie said, “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves.”

The Struggle Is Real

There’s something curiously appropriate about Radioactive’s release in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s time to take stock of the state of things. The question is raised during Radioactive, “Can people benefit from knowing the secrets of nature?”

Coinciding with the 100-year anniversary of the Spanish flu pandemic, it’s a reminder that nothing comes easy and nothing comes without some sort of sacrifice. In the thick of WWI, Marie offered to melt down her two gold Nobels in order to fund the war effort. The offer was refused, but it’s emblematic of the mindset of the times.

For all the advancements science can present, there also closely follows the danger of that science being placed in the wrong hands, those with nefarious purposes. It’s a matter of trust, as posited here, to trust others to see the positive possibilities.

Certainly, the work of Marie and Pierre Curie set the groundwork a century ago for science to continue its advancements, leading to where the possibilities of developing a vaccine for new viruses, like COVID-19, can be accomplished in ever-shortening time spans. The good has to be taken with the bad and once the science genie’s out of the bottle, it can’t be put back.

Ultimately, for STEAM education efforts and for bringing more young girls into scientific studies, Radioactive most certainly should be considered a launching point for inspiring minds.