Wednesday, April 1, 2015

1943 - Madame Curie

Well, I mentioned the possibility of having to change the next year of review and, indeed, circumstances now require that I do just that. My plan to see The Apartment at the TCM Classic Film Festival was thwarted. It seems too many festival pass holders had the same idea so there was no room for any extras. Fortunately, the festival screens several movies at once, so Kat and I hopped over to one of the smaller venues instead to catch another Best Picture nominee from a different year.

So, we'll come back to 1960 another time, but for now, we begin our review of the Academy's nominated films of 1943...

Madame Curie
Mervyn LeRoy
Paul Osborn and Paul H. Rameau
(based on the book by Eve Curie)
Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Henry Travers, Albert Bassermann, Robert Walker, C. Aubrey Smith, Dame May Whitty, Victor Francen, Elsa Bassermann, Reginald Owen, Van Johnson, Margaret O'Brien
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
0 wins

In late 19th century Paris, Marie Sklodowska (Garson) is completing her doctorate at the Sorbonne and is in need of some lab space. When she is introduced to physicist Pierre Curie (Pidgeon), he agrees for her to work alongside him. The two share a love of science, which soon turns into a love of each other. Together, they run experiments in order to discover what Marie theorises is a new previously unknown radioactive element.

As a science enthusiast, I'm not deterred by films set in academia but I imagine that such scientific themes could be uninteresting for some. Madame Curie, however, cleverly borrows from other less boring genres to create an engaging story in which science is really just the backdrop. First, the picture is a somewhat traditional boy-meets-girl romance with fleeting glances and bashful repartee. Then, it's a suspense drama as the two lovebird scientists attempt to discover a new mysterious element.

As such, the science is occasionally portrayed in a simple manner, which I suppose is a necessity given the rather complex principles involved. But by incorporating those aforementioned genres, it's always compelling. So when Pierre and Marie have their first in-depth scientific discourse, the concepts they discuss may be difficult for a lay audience to comprehend, but the mutual fondness they both have for chemistry is clear and we watch as the sparks fly. Or when Marie demonstrates her investigation of pitchblende to Pierre by testing its composition in an electrometer, it's a struggle to understand what's actually going on in scientific terms, but the suspense permeating the scene as the experiment unfolds is truly captivating.

Then again, perhaps this method of pushing the science into the background goes a little too far when, on occasion, the renowned scientists appear to miss the absolute obvious. They spend years breaking down the same eight tons of pitchblende in the hopes of extracting the elusive element that they've now named radium. But in a fit of incompetence, they dismiss the stain that remains in their mortar after all the other elements have been removed. Um, maybe the stain is the radium? To be fair, later that night, they return to the lab and stare excitedly at the glowing radiation (pictured), but it took them long enough to figure it out. (By the way, I think I now know what's in that briefcase in Pulp Fiction.)

This is the 1940s so there is definitely some melodramatic acting on display - probably a result of the melodramatic dialogue - but it isn't constant and it nonetheless remains fun and engaging. Greer Garson is fantastic in the title role, which earned her a Best Actress nomination from the Academy. In opposition to the out-dated stereotypes during her era, Marie Curie is portrayed as supremely intelligent and confident, a genuinely strong role model. As her husband and collaborator, Walter Pidgeon - who, incidentally, also played Garson's husband in the previous year's Best Picture winner Mrs. Miniver - also received recognition in the Best Actor category for a droll performance of a neurotic but affable man. Also of note is Robert Walker in a funny and bright role as Pierre's lab assistant. And Henry Travers and Dame May Whitty both deliver memorably witty turns as Pierre's parents. Interestingly, Travers and Whitty, along with Reginald Owen, also appeared in Mrs. Miniver. That's no less than five principal actors in common with Madame Curie. Quite the repertory company.

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