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Marie Curie is often maddening—at least, that is, if you’re not still espousing social conventions from the Dark Ages. For every handful of peer approvals the titular Polish physicist received, she faced a barrage of rejections. But her colleagues didn’t plague her because she was an incompetent researcher or teacher. Always, Marie Curie got knocked out of the ring simply for being a woman.
Of course, in 1903 Curie also became the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, and later the first person and only woman to win it twice—in two different sciences, no less—so she blasted expectations of the fairer sex anyway. The creation of Marie Curie is on par, having been written by two women (Marie Noelle and Andrea Stoll) and directed by one (Noelle) in a time when film is still largely a boys’ club.
After a blue-tinged opening sequence, Marie Curie begins in 1904, when Curie (Karolina Gruszka) gives birth to her second daughter with her husband and work partner, Pierre (Charles Berling), in France. The timeline then becomes indistinct, but we see Marie lovingly watch Pierre give a speech for the Nobel they shared, with the camera zooming in on Gruszka’s warm, penetrating brown eyes. The pair afterward would gaze just as blissfully at the element they discovered. “Our radium,” Pierre says. “It is radiating from inside.” Both look as if they’re admiring a newborn.
Pierre is not long for this filmic world, however. He fell under a horse-drawn vehicle and died from a skull fracture in 1906, which happens early in the movie. Marie is naturally inconsolable; she misses not only her love but her research partner, soon thinking that she’s “getting stupid” and can’t continue their work without him. It’s after Pierre’s death that doors start shutting for Marie, sometimes literally: A man stops her from seeing the dean of the school at which Pierre was a chair. After she tells the man her name, he says, “I know, Madame. Your husband was a genius scientist.” And though she does get to see the dean and plead for lab funding and offer to teach in Pierre’s place, he counters with, “No one will oppose if you train your husband’s successor.”
The instances of such resistance are frequent and baseless enough throughout Marie Curie to make you grip your popcorn bag so hard you put holes in it. The film is decidedly feminist, with Marie encouraging her daughters and female students to press on if science interests them and pointing out the hypocrisies she faces, such as being asked to refuse her second Nobel after her affair with a married man is discovered. (She remarks that if honored men were asked to do the same, there would be no one left to award.) This affair, however, puts a chink in her girl-power armor—the betrayed wife was a friend, but Marie doesn’t care.
Gruszka is wonderful to watch as the spunky, no-nonsense Marie. She doesn’t want congratulatory remarks or celebration when she achieves something, at one point wordlessly (and amusingly) brushing off a student who invites her to have a drink. Yet she tosses back shots at home and isn’t immune to being charmed, giggling, for example, when Albert Einstein (Piotr Glowacki) flirts with her. It’s to the film’s benefit that Noelle and Stoll painted her character as human.
“Painted” also describes Michal Englert’s cinematography. That blue tint from the film’s opening recurs throughout, while many other scenes are flooded with natural light. This is a film with both beauty and brains, though the latter has a stronger presence as Marie pushes forward in her research and encourages others to seek and learn. In her speech for her second Nobel, she offers an evergreen lesson: “One shouldn’t be scared of anything in life, but strive to comprehend. Who would we be without curiosity of mind?”
Marie Curie opens Friday at West End Cinema.