This biopic premiered at film festivals last year and was slated for a wide release in 2020 but that was interrupted due to the pandemic. Well, now, Radioactive (2019) is available for streaming on Amazon Prime, where it was bound to end up since the company is one of the producers. However it arrived, I’m glad we finally have a decent film about Marie Curie, because I couldn’t make it through the only previous attempt — 1943’s Madame Curie starring Greer Garson.
Give Rosamond Pike all the credit for a compelling performance spanning Marie Skłodowska Curie’s life from the 1890s through her death in 1934, complete with frizzy hair and aging makeup. This is not a glamorous role, and Curie is a complicated, prickly character, which makes her enjoyable to watch. Without a lot of fancy costumes or exotic settings, this is mostly a character study of a woman driven by ideas and trying not to be distracted by the rest of the world. She does forge a partnership with Pierre Curie, both in love and in scholarship, but there’s always a little tension about who is pursuing whose scientific ideas, who does the work, and who gets the credit.
For as much as both the director and Rosamund Pike told the press this isn’t a standard biopic, it really is. Pike said, “I have no interest in doing a conventional biopic because in a way, lives, however interesting, don’t always lend themselves to drama.” But this film is structured like any biographical movie to highlight only the most dramatic elements of Marie Curie’s life, plus inventing a key moment.
While the film does what you expect it to do, there are also some clever little real things included that you might not expect, like the Loie Fuller dancing, items from the radium fad of the early 20th century, and quotes from Marie Curie taken from her letters and family. The film also jumps around in time with flashbacks in Marie Curie’s life and then flash-forwards in history that relate to uses of radioactivity. Those may not be to everyone’s taste, but I rather liked them and found they add context to the scientific discoveries being reenacted.
Costumes in Radioactive (2019)
While costumes aren’t the focus of this movie, it does have a top-notch designer in multiple Oscar-nominee Consolata Boyle. Since the story spans several decades, plus jumps around in time, there are plenty of historical costumes in the film, just nothing too extreme. In fact, the look of the film is strongly influenced by the subject matter, and the art direction combines with the costuming to create a wash of green and blue tones in most every scene.
Costume designer Boyle told Variety about her limited color palette for Marie Curie’s costumes:
“I wanted to keep it as simple as possible. The strongest colors were the grays and dark overalls she wore for her lab work. [Blue] was the key color because I wanted to associate it with the lapis stone and the scientific elements of blue. That was her symbolic color.”
I’m guessing what may appear black on screen is often dark grey or the blue that Boyle is talking about. Also, she used small prints and patterns that give visual texture to otherwise plain, untrimmed outfits.
This is visually a very dark movie, the only highlights being dots of radioactive green and occasional swaths of white. Such as the off-white linen blouse Marie wears when she and Pierre first meet is inspired by a photo of her as a girl, according to Boyle.
At a dinner early in the film, Marie wears another white blouse that’s accented with black embroidery, perhaps reminiscent of the Polish heritage she was always proud of, even though she was harassed due to.
The director Marjane Satrapi is a painter and visual artist as well and wanted a specific look for the film. She admitted that she wanted this film to be beautiful, saying: “I’m an aesthete and I come from a painting background. I can’t stand ugliness. I’m attracted by beauty.” I’d say she succeeded as Radioactive has an elegant visual style and even the laboratory scenes are lit and shot beautifully.
Have you watched Radioactive? Do you think it’s a conventional biopic or not?