January 26, 2021 – There are relatively few women in science even now, but a hundred years ago, there were almost none. Marie Curie (1867–1934) was not only one of the few women scientists of the day, but she, and her family are towering giants in the fields of physics and chemistry.
“Radioactive” is a dramatization of Curie's life (based on Lauren Redniss' 2011 book, Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Fallout). This is one of several films based on her life. She was born Maria Salomea Sklodowska in Warsaw, but the movie picks up her life at an industrial lab in Paris, where her uncompromising, independent and perfectionist ways conflict with the men in charge of running the lab.
Marie (played by Rosamund Pike of “Gone Girl”) finds herself kicked out of lab space, until she is offered new lab space by a faculty member at The City of Paris Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution who is attracted to her, Pierre Curie (Sam Riley of “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”).
She resists partnering with Pierre for a time, but eventually begins working experiments with him because he is a fine scientist in his own right. The two fall in love and get married. Marie gives birth to two daughters.
Marie is convinced that pitchblende (uraninite) ore contains unknown elements with mysterious properties, like radioactivity (a term she coined). Through lengthy and difficult refining processes using huge amounts of pitchblende, chemicals and water, Marie and Pierre are able to separate out two previously unknown elements from the ore, the radioactive elements of radium and polonium.
The discovery proved that atoms are not indivisible, as was previously thought. Atoms can radioactively decay into different elements. For her discovery, Marie was eventually awarded two Nobel Prizes, one in physics and one in chemistry (she is the only person ever to be awarded Nobel prizes in two different scientific fields). Pierre had to fight to have Marie's name included in the 1903 Nobel physics award due to the prejudices of the day.
Much of their early research was conducted in a poorly ventilated shed. Not knowing about the harmful effects of radiation, both Marie and Pierre were exposed to excessive radiation which eventually led to their deaths. Pierre died first, in 1906, the victim of a street accident. The movie indicates that his ill health was a contributing factor in the fatal accident.
Marie continued on for more than 25 years after that in steadily declining health. The movie details the important work she did in World War I, developing portable x-ray units used to evaluate injuries. An estimated one million soldiers were treated with the aid of over 200 field hospital x-ray machines, saving many lives and limbs.
The movie shows that Marie was able to overcome resistance to her x-ray treatment ideas by threatening government officials with negative publicity. Marie learned the power of negative publicity the hard way. Her academic enemies used publicity to fan the flames of a scandal over her extramarital affair with physicist Paul Langevin (played by Aneurin Barnard of “Dunkirk”).
Rosamund Pike gives a fine performance as Marie, but the film seemed to me to be overly melodramatic, almost like a soap opera. There were also jarring, and unnecessary digressions in the film to much later events, like the development of atomic weapons and the Chernobyl accident.
Despite these digressions, the film doesn't quite do justice to Marie and the rest her family's contributions to science (the Curie family has won more Nobel Prizes than any other, four prizes were awarded to five individual family members) and the Curie legacy. This film rates a C+.
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