It was dirty work, Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of radium and polonium. To investigate uranium at their Paris laboratory, Marie acquired several tons of pitchblende, a black ore, and the industrial waste product left over when uranium was removed from it. They ground the rock and dissolved it in acid to separate the elements and, in the process, discovered polonium and radium. They were working, up to their elbows, in poisonous radioactive materials.
“Radioactive,” Marjane Satrapi’s biopic of the renowned Polish-born French physicist, is alive to the toil of science. Not just its grubby, physical labor, but the burden of a sexist, male-dominated field, the hardships of a public life and the unrelenting tenacity of a pioneer like Curie. As played by Rosamund Pike, Curie is as tough, prickly and potent as that pitchblende.
The film, which debuts Friday on Amazon Prime Video, comes from Lauren Redniss’ 2010 graphic biography, “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout.” Satrapi, the Iranian-French filmmaker, has her own roots in graphic novels. She co-directed the adaptation of her own “Persepolis,” a striking coming-of-age tale set against the Islamic Revolution.
“Persepolis” had a compelling monochrome look, and Redniss’ book a more surreal, iridescent style. But “Radioactive” is bathed in the more conventional gauzy glow of a biopic, and clings disappointingly to the genre’s familiar rhythms. With some notable exceptions, this is a traditional treatment of an extraordinary life, complete with deathbed scenes that bookend the film and frequent lines, in Jack Thorne’s screenplay, in which Curie single-mindedly speaks of scientific progress less like a person than a grade-school teaching tool.
Maybe there’s not anything so wrong with that. Female scientists are so frequently underappreciated that “Radioactive” is worthwhile. Curie hasn’t been absent from screens. There was, most recently, the 2017 international production “Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge” and the 1997 French drama “Les Palmes de M. Schutz,” with Isabelle Huppert as Curie. But not since 1943’s Oscar-nominated “Madame Curie” has she had the full biopic treatment. As the first person to win the Nobel Prize twice – after which she saved countless lives with mobile X-ray labs during World War I – she had the sort of huge life that more than fills a movie.
And “Radioactive” has endeavored to capture a full picture of Curie, starting with her romance with Pierre (Sam Riley). Having suffered the misogyny of colleagues and recently been turned out of her office, she’s skeptical of him both professionally and romantically. But he proves an equitable partner and, besides, has something special to offer: laboratory space.