Lydia Dean Pilcher, a seasoned-producer-turned-newbie-director, along with Ginny Mohler, bring us a tale of the girls who, through their work for the radium industry at the beginning of the 20th century, were exposed to so much radium poisoning that a Geiger counter placed over their graves will tick for a thousand years. The script, penned by Mohler and Brittany Shaw, doesn’t reach the excitement of a court drama and honestly lacks tension throughout, but the film is salvaged by the performances of its leads and supporting cast. You can tell that both Pilcher and Mohler are new to the directing field, but there’s a palpable passion in what they’re trying to say.
In 1920s New Jersey, Bessie (Joey King) works with her sister (Abby Quinn) for American Radium, a company profiting from the recent discovery of the miraculous element Radium, to paint glow-in-the-dark clock faces. But, as Bessie’s sister becomes more and more sick, a nod from her boyfriend sends them into the path of a group of scientists trying to prove the dangers of the radium industry, who subsequently reveal the disastrous consequences of the glowing paint. Realising that their employer knowingly exposed them and hundreds of other girls to the deadly element and denied all accountability, Bessie and a small group of workers go up against the commercial giant in an attempt to save the other Radium girls still working in the factory.
Built off of genuinely fascinating subject matter, the story is trickier to execute than you might expect: with the audience knowing very well that death awaits the Radium girls (the intro sequence alluding to what we now recognise as radioactivity makes it oh so explicit), the tension levels face an uphill struggle to reach a point of victory for the women. This biopic style ultimately weighs the film down. Though the historical relevance adds a shock factor, the story itself feels a little too constructed to hold that gritty realism – the times in which creative license is taken advantage of is when we transcend to the emotional experiences of the girls.
The stiff script, which is often a death sentence for some films, is saved with performances by the likes of King as Bessie, Quinn as her ailing sister Josephine and also notably Susan Heyward (who some may recognise from Orange is the New Black) as Etta, a Black documentary filmmaker who acts as an outside voyeur for the developing social climate of the times. Bessie herself is a refreshing protagonist for a film like this; she is more interested in boys than politics and fixated on her dreams of becoming famous. She even refuses to lick the paintbrushes to a tip in the factory because she dislikes the paint’s taste, despite her pay being docked – a choice that ultimately saves her life. Her transformation into the steadfast pursuer of justice (though a little fast and forced) is a nice angle to witness the story from, even if it is confined when the film changes into a courtroom drama.
What may please some viewers and annoy others is the film’s attempts to expand its view from just these girls and their conflict with American Radium (a fictional placeholder for the real-life U.S. Radium Corporation) into a socially-woke look at 1920s America that inevitably ends up being a somewhat limited overview. The film touches upon the activism around worker’s rights and suffrage happening at the time, predominantly through Bessie’s Communist boyfriend (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) and his friends – though the romantic storyline is pretty much only there to give Bessie a route into this group of activists, and ultimately the audience a look into this rebellion. Regardless, the attempt doesn’t go completely wasted as these inclusions (alongside some little nods to Egyptian mythology that Hollywood cinema has gotten Bessie obsessed with) give the film a sense of distinctiveness and spirit.
It has to be mentioned that Radium Girls is an interesting parallel to be released in the UK at a similar time to Radioactive, Marjane Satrapi and Jack Thorne’s biopic of Marie Curie starring Rosamund Pike as the notorious scientist who discovered Radium itself. With crossover in the subject matter, the growing movement for female-led historical dramas with real political relevance is starting to expand into fields of science and law that we haven’t gotten to see before. Both films fall short of their ambitions, but where Radioactive lacked heart and was a complete mess of structuring, Radium Girls may also be a bit rickety in the script but, as an early piece of work by new directors, shows the promise and soul that Satrapi’s film sadly lost.
Radium Girls is available in select cinemas (both in-person and virtual) from October 23rd
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.