Marie Curie’s name is renowned worldwide. During her lifetime, she won not just one, but two Nobel Prizes: the first for her work alongside her husband, Pierre, in radioactivity; the second for her personal discovery of the elements radium and polonium.
Their research would, of course, become the basis for X-ray technology, medical diagnoses, nuclear energy and even the atomic bomb.
Most of those achievements weren’t realized until after the Curies’ deaths. But none of those things would have been possible without Marie’s “impossibly dramatic” stubbornness and her dedication to science.
But while this Polish-born, naturalized French physicist’s achievements in science are found in science textbooks the world over, what’s less well known is how Madame Curie worked through great personal tragedy and controversy, always finding ways to continue helping others, blazing trails for others to follow in her footsteps.
Marie and Pierre are first drawn together through their mutual respect for each other’s work in the field of science. This forms the basis not only for their professional partnership but for their marriage as well. Marie can be obstinate, refusing to kowtow to the demands of others and insisting on doing things her own way. Pierre understands this, but he also inserts himself into every problem she faces, knowing that she’ll be too stubborn to ask for help and that they work better as a team. And although she never verbally thanks her husband for his support, it’s clear that Marie loves him.
During World War I, one of Marie’s two daughters, Irène, serves as a nurse and convinces her mother to help with the war effort by outfitting ambulances with X-ray machines (which Marie designed). Marie goes to great lengths to get funding for this project, even offering to have her golden Nobel Prizes melted down and sold. We later learn that more than a million soldiers were X-rayed during the war, preventing many unnecessary amputations and saving countless lives.
Marie asks Irène to stop her research in radioactivity because she is worried the radiation will make Irène sick, as it did with her and Pierre. She also expresses concern about Irène working as a nurse during the war since “death is not good for a young person to see.” However, like her mother before her, Irène persists, going on to win her own Nobel Prize for her subsequent work in radioactivity.
Even though the extra money would allow them to purchase a better laboratory, the Curies decide not to patent radium. This choice allows others to conduct research that would eventually lead to using radiation as a method to treat cancer patients.
Radioactive also paints a realistic portrait of the grief process, something that viewers working through grief themselves should be aware of here. After Pierre’s death, Marie falls into a depressive-like state. She becomes distracted at home and at work. She expresses regret for not telling Pierre how much he meant to her and also confesses that she doesn’t know how to go on without him. She also has some strange visions born of her grief, seeing visions of Pierre that obviously aren’t real. She also has a panic attack when she enters a hospital because of a memory saying goodbye to her own mother in one. We learn that her mother died when she and her sister were very young. Marie later sobs over Pierre’s body in a casket.
Someone points out that even though there are many things to be scared of, there are also many things to celebrate.
Marie doesn’t believe in God or any sort of afterlife, because she thinks that there is no science in faith. However, Pierre convinces her to attend a few seances after discovering a medium using radium to swindle customers into believing that she can summon spirits from the dead. At first, Marie is angry that the woman would use her science to promote fraud, but after Pierre’s death, she begs for Pierre to be summoned so that she can speak to him again.
A nurse crosses herself. We see crucifixes above beds in hospital rooms. When a woman dies, we see a bright light coming from the sky, which could be interpreted as the woman going to heaven.
Marie and Pierre skinny dip and lie on a picnic blanket (we see both of their bare backsides, as well as part of her breasts). They kiss several times throughout the film, and also have sex (during which we see movements and a lot of skin).
Marie kisses a married man (after Pierre’s death), and we later see them wake up in bed together, covered only by blankets. This is also witnessed by Marie’s two young daughters. When their affair is made public, we learn that she advised the man to deny his wife sex whenever he was upset with her. A woman tells her colleague that she won’t be his mistress.
Pierre gets run over by a carriage and we see the shadowy silhouette of his body as he bleeds and dies, his skull having been crushed.
Marie and Irène tend to many injured soldiers on a battlefield (some have been stabbed, others burned, but all bleeding heavily). A body hangs from a tree branch after being thrown into the tree by a bomb blast. Several soldiers with amputated limbs recuperate at a hospital. We see several dead horses left behind on a battlefield.
As anyone who has learned about Marie Curie will know, she, Pierre and their colleagues were unaware of the side effects of working with radioactive materials until they had already started succumbing to radiation poisoning and sickness. Both Marie and Pierre cough up blood. Pierre suffers a bad radiation burn on his hand after a doctor attempts to shrink a tumor by applying radium to it directly. And Marie finally faints and succumbs to her symptoms, her bones weak from radiation exposure.
In flashforward scenes, we see a plane drop a bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, atomic bomb testing in Nevada in 1961 and firemen saving scientists from Chernobyl in 1986. The victims of Hiroshima and Chernobyl are shown recovering in hospital beds. We also see the plastic dummies used for testing in Nevada being blasted apart and melted by the heat from the explosion.
A woman slaps her husband while they are arguing. Marie gets slapped by another woman. We see blood that has come from a woman’s uterus just before she goes into early labor.
Someone exclaims, “Heavens!”
When Marie’s affair goes public, many people are outraged, calling her a “dirty Pole,” “dirty Jew” and “filthy immigrant.”
People drink wine at various instances throughout the film. They also smoke from pipes and cigarettes. A man orders champagne at a restaurant to celebrate. Someone carries a bottle of wine home. Marie and her sister drink liquor. Someone jokes about being drugged into compliance.
Marie and Pierre live a bit in denial when the claims about radium making people sick first come to light. However, after two scientists successfully prove their leukemia and anemia resulted from working with radium, they are forced to accept that their discovery comes with health-damaging and potentially fatal side effects.
Pierre addresses the danger of radioactive materials when he accepts the Nobel Prize (during which we see the results onscreen with flashes of Hiroshima and Chernobyl). However, he also believes that further research, experimentation and invention will eventually yield more good outcomes than harmful ones. Marie is outraged by Pierre’s statement and yells at him. But as the disagreement progresses, it becomes clear that she is actually just upset that Pierre went to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize without her (she was too ill to travel at the time). She accuses him of taking credit for her brilliance even though Pierre was the one who demanded that the prize be awarded to both of them, since they were equal partners on the project.
After making several outrageous demands to a laboratory, Marie is asked to leave and not come back. She claims it’s because she’s Polish and a woman; therefore, she refuses to apologize for her behavior.
A woman’s mothering skills (or rather, lack thereof) are insulted.
Marie Curie broke through many barriers for women in science, and Radiation tells her passionate, brave, flawed story. She became the first female professor at the academy where her husband taught. And not only was she the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, but the only woman to win it twice.
Marie’s work led to discoveries in the field of medicine with X-ray machines and cancer treatments (still known in France as curietherapie). However, the juxtaposition between the benefits of radioactive materials and its invisible dangers are felt strongly in Radioactive.
As we know (and as the film shows us), the Curies’ work with radium and polonium led to the eventual creation of the atomic bomb. And the people who worked with the radioactive elements in those early days all became sick from their constant exposure to the radiation involved, Marie and Pierre included.
And despite Marie’s many lifetime achievements, her personal life was kind of a mess. Her arrogance could rub people the wrong way. And if it weren’t for her husband, she probably never would have found a lab to conduct her research in. After she loses him in a tragic accident, she spirals out of control emotionally and morally, engaging in an affair with a married man and losing the respect of many of her colleagues for her indiscretion (something she stubbornly refuses to feel remorse for).
The film itself has some issues as well. Sex scenes are surprisingly explicit (including brief nudity) for a PG-13 film. We also see the violent effects of war. However, the film is also void of foul language and seems to be more focused on how Marie pushed through negative circumstances in her life (despite the fact that she caused some of them) to find ways to help people with her scientific discoveries.
Marie Curie died on July 4, 1934. Her life wasn’t perfect (which this film doesn’t shy away from), but her contribution to science made her a legend.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.