Equal parts straightforward history lesson and expressionist art film, the biographical drama “Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge” is an absorbing and intimate look at the famous scientist’s life.
The story begins in 1903, when the Polish-born Marie (played by Polish actor Karolina Gruszka) and her French husband, Pierre (Charles Berling), have just received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their research in radiation. They continued work in their personal lab, actually a refitted garden shed, working to isolate the elements polonium and radium, which they had discovered years earlier.
Director Marie Noelle (co-writing with Andrea Stoll) depict the Curies as a happy couple, caring for their two daughters and working feverishly in their lab. That ends in 1906, when a horse-drawn cart runs over and kills Pierre as he crosses a street. Marie is distraught, but vows to carry on their pioneering work.
The bulk of Noelle’s film centers on Marie’s years after Pierre’s death, as she works to build on their previous discoveries. She also must battle the chauvinist attitudes of France’s male-dominated scientific community and whispers that Marie actually contributed little to Pierre’s discoveries. A second Nobel, in Chemistry in 1911, still wasn’t enough to quiet that sexist talk — in part because of her love affair with physicist Paul Langevin (Arieh Worthalter), a student of Pierre’s and a married man.
Noelle creates several moments of tender beauty when depicting Marie’s drive to discovery. She’s helped by a powerful, passionate performance by Gruszka, who shows Marie’s inquisitive scientific mind, her desire to be respected by the men judging her worth and her fierce determination to keep Pierre’s memory alive.
In that way, Marie Curie’s story parallels the director’s. The movie is Noelle’s first flying solo, after co-directing “The Anarchist’s Wife” and “Ludwig II” with writer-director husband Peter Sehr, who died of cancer in 2013. Noelle’s application of her experience brings a depth of emotion to Marie’s struggle in widowhood and deepens what could have been a dry historical drama.
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Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge
An engrossing drama shows the life of the pioneering scientist, fighting for respect after her husband’s death.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City).
When • Opens Friday, Oct. 20.
Rated • Not rated, but probably R for sexuality and nudity.
Running time • 100 minutes; in French, German and Polish, with subtitles.