The title of the Marie Curie movie "Radioactive" has multiple meanings. Literally, it refers to the fact that radiation she absorbed in her lab killed her. Figuratively, it alludes to the sexism and classism that led potential colleagues of the pioneering nuclear physicist to avoid her like poison.
"Radioactive" is based on Lauren Redniss' gorgeous graphic novel, which was far from a conventional biography — and the movie is far from a conventional biopic. Filmmaker Marjane Satrapi's own graphic novels and movies include "Persepolis" and "Chicken With Plums." Satrapi finds fresh ways to honor the complexity and breadth of Redniss' work.
The whole movie takes place in the mind of Marie, who collapses and is raced to a hospital in the opening scene. She flashes back to her childhood curiosity about nature, to meeting Pierre Curie, to numerous slights such as being scorned by scientific societies and jeered at on the street.
More daringly, Marie also flashes forward. As she ponders the moral implications of her work with Pierre (who wonders "whether mankind benefits from knowing the secrets of nature"), the movie jumps ahead to show its impact: Hiroshima being bombed, Chernobyl exploding, a frightened child being treated for cancer.
"Radioactive" gets stranger and more ambiguous as it goes, and although Marie's surety and talent are inspiring, it's not one of those movies that charts a triumph-filled path to greatness. After Pierre's untimely death, Marie is so devastated that she flirts with spiritualism, imploring a medium to help her contact Pierre in the beyond.
As enacted by Rosamund Pike, whose take-no-prisoners intelligence is just perfect here, Marie is both a heartsick, keening lover and a seeker of unconventional truths. She becomes more interested in those questions as her own body begins to fail, when justice and morality complicate the research that made her a legend and hero. In her final days, she cautions her daughter, Irène, not to pursue a scientific life "that has brought very little happiness to me."
The movie isn't quite so grim. Chief among its pleasures is the charmingly oddball courtship of Pierre and Marie, with pillow talk along the lines of "I read your paper on the magnetic properties of steel" and "I have also read your paper on crystallization, which I enjoyed very much." Get ready for the swoony romance of Pierre proposing to Marie "as a matter of scientific interest."
"Radioactive" insists that work and love were inextricably linked for the Curies, who literally died so the rest of us could better understand the world. As a coda illustrates, not only did Marie win two Nobel Prizes and Pierre one, but their son-in-law was the head of UNICEF when it won a Nobel. And in defiance of her mother's advice, Irène did carry on Marie's work and won her own Nobel for it.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
⋆⋆⋆½ out of 4 stars
Where to watch: Amazon.
Rated: PG-13 for images of war and brief nudity.