Saturday, February 14, 2015

She Blinded Me with Science

Film: Madame Curie
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Don’t let the fact that I have degrees in English literature and linguistics color your opinion on what I’m about to say: I am a science geek. The vast majority of my reading for pleasure is connected to science in one way or another. I admit that I’m not much more than a dilettante when it comes to actual science, but I love it. Stories about science, about its importance and its benefits, are always interesting to me. So when Turner Classic ran Madame Curie, a film that I’ve had some difficulty tracking down, I was pretty interested.

The main point of Madame Curie as a film is to humanize our two main characters, Pierre (Walter Pidgeon) and Marie Curie (Greer Garson). We start with Marie’s days in college at the Sorbonne. She is young, talented, and dirt poor, and attracts the attention of one of her professors when she faints in class. The professor (Albert Bassermann) takes interest in Marie and offers her a position doing research on a particular question. Short on laboratory space, the professor convinces Pierre Curie to accept her into his lab, where she becomes a person of intense fascination to Curie’s lab assistant, David (Robert Walker).

Despite Curie’s initial objections, he grows to appreciate the intense and intelligent young woman in his lab. When he realizes that her graduation means that she will return to Poland to teach, he begins to panic. As a stop-gap, he invites her to spend a weekend with his parents (Henry Travers and Dame May Whitty), and in the course of the weekend, proposes to her. She agrees. This brings about her decision to work for her doctorate. She decides to study a question brought up earlier in the film concerning a mysterious type of radiation emanating from a piece of pitchblende. Over multiple years of painstaking, sometimes physically painful work, the pair expands the periodic table with the discovery of radium.

Let’s be honest, though. Even for a science nerd like me, watching a couple of people in fin de siècle Paris laying out bowls of water infused with a barium/radium mixture in the hopes of separating the two elements through evaporation and crystallization is hardly the stuff of gripping drama. Madame Curie is smart enough to actually infuse a little bit of tension into this process and also to go through it more or less in a couple of minutes of montage. A great deal of time is spent instead on the relationship between Pierre and Marie, which is where our attention should be.

I don’t want this to sound like the film gives short shrift to the incredible scientific advances made by the pair, because this is not the case. Instead, the film shows us their relationship and their discovery of radium through the context of their marriage and their love for each other. I’m impressed with how well the film seems to convey their relationship. Walter Pidgeon certainly appears a great deal older than Greer Garson, but he really wasn’t. In fact, the seven-year age difference between our principle actors comes close to matching the age difference of the real Pierre and Marie Curie.

It helps tremendously that Pidgeon and Garson worked well on the screen together. The pair made nine or so films together. Madame Curie was their second or third as an on-screen couple, but the chemistry (no pun intended) is already here. They work together on screen well, something that is enhanced in this film by Pidgeon playing Pierre Curie as both brilliant and socially awkward.

If there is a problem with Madame Curie it’s that this is a very slow film. The drama comes, literally, from water evaporating from a bowl at one point. Additionally, it’ is almost a foregone conclusion of what will happen. Many (and moreso at the time of the filming) will know that the Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1903. We know they discovered radium. So the moment when it appears that all of their work has gone for naught is less tension-filled than it should be.

But really, that’s the biggest issue here. Madame Curie is well-written and well-acted. It’s just not that exciting. This isn’t the sort of film you eat popcorn to and it was never intended to be that. It’s a good story, though, and worth seeing if only to understand the true level of sacrifice necessary sometimes for scientific advancement.

Why to watch Madame Curie: Because science kicks ass.
Why not to watch: It’s slow.


  1. I liked this film a lot. I was amazed that a movie made in the 1940s not only gave science a serious presentation, but also showed how critical a woman was to this major contribution. Yes, this was reflecting real life, but bios back then had no issues whatsoever with presenting something other than the truth and the fact that they didn't make Pierre the "real" scientist and Marie just the person who took his notes was somewhat of a surprise to me.

    And as you wrote, it shows the painstaking labor and time they devoted to this discovery. They didn't just look into a microscope and see something new. They believed there had to be something there (numbers don't lie) and they kept working until they found it.

    If I had a daughter with even a smidgen of interest in science the two films I would try my damndest to get her to watch would be Contact (1997) and this film.

    1. Damn, I forgot something. I was going to start my comment with "Good heavens Miss Sakimoto, you're beautiful!"

      Better late than never, I guess.

    2. Now if I can just work in a Wall of Voodoo reference one of these days...

      Actually, I completely agree. Neither of my girls is particularly science-y, although both of them do well in the subject and both are pretty solid in math. I've been trying to interest my younger daughter as much as possible in such things and it may be working. She seems to have a minor interest in forensic medicine.

      I wonder how much of the real nature of this story comes from the fact that the real story was known--the film was only a generation removed from the actual discovery, after all, and Curie was less than 10 years dead when the film was released. It does cause me to wonder how the story would have been depicted if it had happened fifty years earlier.

      It's the painstaking nature of it that really impresses me the most in both the real story and the film. It would have been easy to, as you say, have them look into a microscope and see something. Instead, we get the four year slog of boiling down tons of pitchblende for a small stain of radium in a porcelain bowl.

  2. To me, a person with only a mild interest in the subject, this was the essence of a Prestige Project. An important topic about extraordinarily committed people with a real mission to discover something they know is worthy presented in a professional but prosaic fashion. That's admirable but with the stately pace adopted here dull as dishwater.

    I adore Garson and to a lesser degree Pidgeon and Walker but either through direction or reverence for the Curies their performances seem overly sedate and studied.

    1. We'll disagree on this one. I like how much this respects its subject matter and how much attention is paid to the actual science here. Often, when people claim to love science, they really only love the pretty pictures of space and how cool things look under a microscope. Real science is a lot of difficult grunt work, much of which doesn't pay off. I like that we get that reality here.