Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 24, 2021)
Fresh off her Oscar-winning turn in 1942’s, Mrs. Miniver, Greer Garson returned with another award-nominated effort: 1943’s Madame Curie. Here we get a look at the life of the acclaimed scientist.
Set in Paris circa the late 19th century, Marie Sklowdowska (Garson) leaves Poland to defy gender-based conventions and study at the Sorbonne. Along the way, she meets physicist Pierre Curie (Walter Pidgeon), and they soon become research partners.
Marie and Pierre also develop into lovers and eventually marry. While they balance their personal relationship, they delve into research that leads to the discovery of radium.
When I reviewed Mrs. Miniver, I wrote this: “Unfortunately, the movie’s titular icon comes across as little more than a cipher. Kay seems more like a symbol than an actual character. The role asks Garson to look noble and vaguely stressed at times but little more than that. She fills those goals acceptably well, but I can’t figure out how she won an Oscar for this one-dimensional and unchallenging part.”
When I reviewed 1940’s Pride & Prejudice, I wrote this: “Garson simply fails to find Elizabeth’s charm and spunk. Whereas Elizabeth should seem intelligent and independent, Garson plays her as smug and unlikable through too much of the film.”
After two less than impressive experiences with Garson’s work, Curie becomes the third strike, and not just because she was far too old for the role. That occurred in Pride as well, and the notion of a nearly-40-year-old Garson as a mid-20s Marie does seem absurd.
Nonetheless, my issues with Garson don’t relate strongly to her “advanced age”. Instead, I continue to find her to offer a flat and uninspiring screen presence.
This doesn’t occur because I don’t relate to the performance styles of the era, as I can find tons of 1940s work I like. Heck, I can locate vastly superior acting in this movie, as pretty much the rest of the cast surpasses the stiff and dull Garson.
Garson’s weaknesses become all the more prominent because Pidgeon seems so much more natural. He makes Pierre engaging and human, in contrast with the mannered, stilted Garson.
Given the movie’s focus, a lackluster performance by its lead actor becomes a prominent drawback. No matter what other strengths a movie of this sort might boast, when the performer who dominates the film seems subpar, the film suffers a virtually fatal flaw.
Other aspects of Curie do compensate somewhat, with a quality supporting cast in the fore. In addition to Pidgeon, we find productive performances from folks like Henry Travers and May Whitty.
Also, we get attractive photography from Joseph Ruttenberg – maybe a little too appealing, as the cinematography makes the fact the movie filmed on soundstages so obvious. Still, Ruttenberg creates a striking look for the film.
Too bad the void at the top renders these positives moot. Greer Garson gives such a flat lead performance that any potential strengths amount to little.