Science, Womanhood, Beauty–this film has them all.
You always have to take biopics with a grain of salt–in this case with a grain of radium salts.
I have very little idea what the real Maria Salomea Skłodowska-Curie was like, beyond what I learned in school and read on Wikipedia. I know that she and her husband Pierre Curie won the Nobel Prize for their discovery of radium and that she won it again after his death. I know that she succeeded as a woman in a man’s world and that she survived a scandal when she had an adulterous love affair with a married man years after Pierre died. I know one her daughters also won the Nobel prize. And I know that she did not understand the dangers of radioactivity (a word she coined) and died of prolonged exposure to it.
The real Marie Curie
Marie Noelle’s Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge is not a naturalistic portrait of the great scientist, but uses her to make a point, which may or may not have been valid in the real Curie’s life. Noelle focuses on Curie the woman. This focus does detract from Curie’s genius. In fact, that is the point: You can be a genius and a feminine woman at the same time. The theme of the picture is “the embodied womanhood of a great mind.”
We see Curie working in the lab with Pierre or by herself, but we also see her in Pierre’s arms. For the Curies, science is an aphrodisiac. She obviously adores Pierre, but in one understated moment we see her correcting a mistake he makes on the chalkboard. The scientific establishment might disparage her as a woman, but the men she worked with and loved treated her as an equal.
Years after Pierre’s devastating death, she finds intimacy again with another scientist (because for Curie a shared passion for knowledge kindles a shared passion for love). Unfortunately he is married–to an “ordinary woman” who cannot compete with Curie’s ambition and brilliance but who does not want to surrender her husband and the father of her children. The lovers carry on their affair in secret. But can a scientist stand to conceal the truth?
Science is hard work. At several points we see Curie stirring a vat of hot liquid. At first I thought she was washing clothes, but actually she was purifying pitchblende to get radium. These are eloquent moments, because they suggest a bridge to Curie’s domestic life. With the help of her sister and father-in-law she raised two daughters. She teaches them science and in one inspiring scene she shows one of them how to climb a rope. This is authentic girl power–far superior, in my opinion, to anything we might get from Star Wars or Wonder Woman, because it is set in the real world.
It took me a while to see how the stylization of the film supported its theme of the embodied female mind. For example, we see a lot of Curie’s body in the movie. I thought this was strange, until I realized that the director (a woman who co-wrote the screenplay with another woman) was not going to let us just see a scientist walking around in a long black dress. No, Marie Curie had a body as well as a mind–a woman’s body. The actress who plays Curie, Karolina Gruszka, is beautiful, but not a mannequin. She is intense and determined even while emotions play subtly across her features.
Karolina Gruszka as Madame Curie
The most striking aspect of the film is the cinematography. The palette is dark and tends toward the blue end of the spectrum. This color scheme has symbolic significance: Dark blue is a “serious” color. Radium glows blue. And blue is the color of the Virgin Mary (aka Marie). Marie Curie is incorruptible like the Virgin Mary, but she is definitely no virgin. This palette, along with the consummate recreation of the places, clothing, technology and even hairstyles of the period, gives the film a “classic,” aged feeling, similar to the effect of the sepia palette of The Godfather. There is a kind of haziness to the light in some shots. I normally don’t like hazy photography, but in this case the haziness acts as a medium in which the actions take place, a medium of time and feeling. The style puts Curie’s struggle for equal treatment, as well as her womanhood, into a credible historical context. This poster captures the visual mood of the film:
Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge has an important theme that it brilliantly captures in every aspect of its creation. The real Marie Curie might only have been a jumping off point for its makers, but oh what a journey they take us on.
If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life