The Geiger counter is ticking moderately for this forthright biopic of Marie Curie, born Maria Skłodowska: the historic double-Nobel winner in physics for the discovery of radioactivity, and then in chemistry for the discovery of radium and polonium. Screenwriter Jack Thorne has adapted Lauren Redniss’s much admired graphic novel about Marie and her husband and scientific partner Pierre Curie (to whom the Nobel committee at first wanted to confer the prize without Marie – unable to believe that a woman could be important in scientific discovery). The Iranian-born French film-maker Marjane Satrapi directs.
Marie is played with dignity and composure by Rosamund Pike, although with slightly more froideur than was perhaps the case. Sam Riley does a decent job of playing Pierre; Anya Taylor-Joy is Marie’s equally brilliant scientist daughter Irène and Simon Russell Beale has a harrumphing cameo as the young Marie’s beetle-browed doctoral supervisor, professor Gabriel Lippmann, who refuses to let her have the facilities that she needs. Despite the slightly schmaltzy meet-cute that the film contrives between Marie and Pierre, Pike is good at the abrupt and maladroit side of Marie, which coexists with a romantic streak, and her initial (well-founded) suspicion that Pierre’s interest in her work may simply end in his taking it over, without her getting any of the credit.
The movie partly follows the classic period-biopic template with the story extending in flashback from Marie being wheeled into hospital with her final illness. But the narrative is more unusual and ambitious – with its stylised flashforward sequences showing the consequences of Marie’s discovery, occurring like dream-premonitions. There is a micro-drama of a child with cancer being treated with radiotherapy in the 1950s, and scenes showing the destruction of Hiroshima and US nuclear weapons testing. It is not easy to know how to take these sequences: they disrupt conventional storytelling in interesting ways, and yet it is disconcerting to see nuclear war as the obvious evil deployed effectively to “balance” the good implications of cancer treatment.
The movie is on stronger ground simply showing Marie and Irène’s work with mobile field-hospital X-ray machines during the first world war. Satrapi’s autobiographical feature debut, Persepolis, in 2007 was partly about her immigrant experience, and for all that the film is cautiously respectful of Curie’s greatness, Satrapi shows the same warmth and empathy for Marie’s loneliness as a Polish woman who has to leave her homeland to find her future. It is a respectful portrait of a great woman in science – and I found myself wondering about the long-gestating biopic project on the chemist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, whose work on DNA was ignored by the Nobel committee, on the grounds that the prize can only go to living recipients. There was a very good BBC TV movie on the subject in 1987. Life Story starred Juliet Stevenson as Franklin, with Jeff Goldblum as James Watson and Tim Pigott-Smith as Francis Crick and was based on Watson’s own self-admiring account. A new version might take a different tack.
• Available on digital platforms from 15 June.