1934. Marie Curie has collapsed at work. As she is being wheeled into hospital, we watch with her as her life flashes back before her eyes. We start with the young Marie Sklodowska at the University. As usual, Marie is battling with her supervisors who have not given her enough space for her experiments. She gives them an ultimatum, which they don’t accept, so now she has no lab at all.
Marie was originally called Maria, but she has assumed a French name to try and fit in. This appears to be the only compromise that she is prepared to make. When Pierre Curie, another out-of-favour scientist, offers him part of his lab, she initially refuses as it may involve collaborating. Marie is going to take responsibility for everything that she does.
Marie and Pierre do end up collaborating, which wins them a Nobel prize for discovering two new elements, Radium and Polonium. The prize is initially awarded to Pierre alone. They also get married, but not before Marie has issued a list of conditions that show that she is not going to take second place or be the property of anyone.
The film takes us through Pierre’s death – run over by a coach and horses while he was weakened by radiation, Marie’s subsequent affair with his doctoral student, and the national hysteria which ensued, including anti-Polish mobs demonstrating outside her house. Pausing to pick up a second Nobel prize, she works with her daughter, now some sort of health worker, x-raying soldiers in the First World War.
It is a life well lived, which would make a conventional biopic interesting. This film – directed by the wonderful Marjane Satrapi – takes the structure of a conventional biopic, but makes unconventional detours that in turn delight and infuriate you.
Let’s start where its good. Marie is not portrayed as a particularly likeable woman, and certainly not one who cares much about being liked. She is motivated by a thirst for scientific truth and an awareness of her own brilliance. Whatever feminism she has is driven by her absolute knowledge that the incompetent men standing in the way of her research may be clever enough to work in Universities, but they don’t contain a fraction of her intelligence.
Which is why the film makes a serious wrong turn in her reaction to Pierre accepting their Nobel prize alone. She rails at him for accepting acclaim which should be hers, and yet nowhere else in the film does she display the remotest interest in impressing others. Her drive and perseverance – which degrades all her relationships, including with her two daughters (how very like my own departed and impossible mother) – come from a desire for knowledge above anything else.
What also doesn’t quite work is an imposition of snippets showing the negative impact of her discovery, from a radiation clinic in the 1960s, Hiroshima in 1945, the Nevada public nuclear tests and Chernobyl. These are all well-filmed scenes, but detract from a narrative that follows the world in Curie’s head. She has enough to worry about, like her husband’s illness or her own anaemia, to need these anachronistic add-ons.
And look, I may have has a traumatising encounter with Merchant Ivory as a kid, but why do the characters in biopics have to be so posh? One of the main things which alienates Marie from society is that she’s a Polish woman in a French man’s world. And yet her Received Pronunciation makes her indistinguishable from anyone else.
And, yes I know, if it were really true to life they’d be all speaking French, and yes, maybe the real Marie did sound posh, but it does annoy me, maybe more than it should. Speaking with a Polish accent would have marked Marie as an outsider who couldn’t be accepted by polite society. Then again, I’m the person who hated the King’s Speech as no-one could feel sympathy for anyone with an accent like that (oh, and also because the script was obsequious, sentimental badly-written tosh).
In short, the film doesn’t play as safe as it could have done, but still plays pretty bloody safe. I’m prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt as Marjane Satrapi can do no wrong (we even got a minute video of her at the beginning welcoming us in German). Next time, though she’d better get herself a halfway decent script writer.