Marie Noelle’s biopic of Marie Curie has drama and romance and a story of emancipation and forbidden love, as well as an accurate portrayal of the era. The only thing missing is Marie Curie herself, her intelligence, genius, and exceptionality.
Noelle’s movies spans the eight years between two defining moments in Curie’s scientific biography. It begins in 1903, when Pierre and Marie Curie received a Nobel Prize, and ends in 1911, with a second Nobel Prize, this time for Marie alone. Seeing these two important points, one could expect the director to tell the story of a struggle between a scientist and the unknown, about breaching barriers and confronting own weaknesses in order to uncover the mysteries of nature.
Meanwhile, in Marie Curie the lab is just a backdrop, not an area for confrontation. The main heroine does indeed stroll through the laboratory, glancing through time to time at one or two probes, but, to be honest, for Marie Noelle these scenes are just fillers to give viewers a small break from other, more prominent subplots.
The French director gives up on chemistry, deeming it not interesting and not spectacular enough to be the main interest of a mainstream movie. She does not even try to explain the importance of Curie’s discovery and the tremendous amounts of dedication needed to achieve it. Which is a pity, as we do know that scientific breakthroughs, however complicated, can prove to be interesting stories. Morten Tyldum in his The Imitation Game, the biography of brilliant mathematician Alan Turing and his work on decoding the Enigma machine, showed how cryptology can be equally interesting to emotional hardships, and professional life as enthralling as private matters.
In Noelle’s film the whole science thing is just a pretext to explore the sociological background and emotional life and choices of the chemist. This focus causes the affair with married scientist Paul Langevin, in which Marie Curie was involved after her husband’s death, to become, together with the social outrage that it caused, the central point of the movie.
maria skłodowska curie
There is something devious in the way the affair is depicted. On the one hand, she seems to take Curie’s side, showing the hypocrisy of Paris society, which viewed the scientist as a sinner and offender of social conventions. On the other hand, the director takes on the role of one of the gossipers, who, red-faced, watches the forbidden romance unfold. She does not even try to understand why the romance happened, what the romance means for the parties involved, and what it means for the couple. While watching the movie we cannot feel the bond between the lovers, we cannot understand their feelings and we cannot root for them. We are just passively passively waiting to see how the events unfold.
Marie Curie is, finally, an emancipatory tale. It’s the story of an ingenious woman’s fight for recognition from the misogynistic world of academia. However, even that plot is not fully explored, because it cannot be. The movie is full of underdeveloped themes – romance, a family tale (the subplot about her father-in-law which got lost somehow), the story of a scientist, and a tale about freeing yourself from patriarchal society. However, with all these themes, it ends up being yet another predictable mass of pretty images.
If there is one thing worth watching the movie for, it’s Karolina Gruszka’s portrayal of the main character. The Polish actress, who is usually cast as an esoteric seductress, this time could prove herself playing a true, flesh-and-blood character, and she passed the test with flying colours. Gruszka’s Curie travels a long way, changing from a brittle wife and mother into a confident and empowered woman. The change is not explicitly stated in her words, but viewers can feel it in her gestures, face expressions and even the way she moves. The Polish actress indeed succeeded in creating a really convincing character despite all the faults of the screenplay. Her depiction of the chemist is shows a woman who picks a fight for her own sake.
However, even this brilliant and captivating performance cannot redeem the mediocrity of the movie. Marie Curie remains a film with unfulfilled potential, a very beautiful, but psychologically incomplete picture. Marie Curie, one of the most fascinating scholars in the history of science truly deserves a better, more thorough picture.
- Marie Curie, directed by Marie Noelle, cinematography: Michał Englert. Starring: Karolina Gruszka, Izabela Kuna, Arieh Worthalter, Charles Berling, Malik Zidi, Daniel Olbrychski. Release date: 3 March 2017.
Written by Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translated by AS, March 2017