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Review: Poisoned on the job, ‘Radium Girls’ fight back

Joey King and other women use paintbrushes in a factory in "Radium Girls."
Women working with radium-infused paint in a 1920s factory became plaintiffs in a historic court case. Their story is dramatized in “Radium Girls,” starring Joey King, center.
(Juno Films)

Though the title may sound like science fiction or some rock-and-roll romp, “Radium Girls” gets its name from the plaintiffs in a real court case about an American tragedy during the Progressive Era. The case had a lasting impact on workplace protections, though possibly not as enduring as the effect the radiation the women were exposed to would have on their bodies.

From the 1910s through the ’20s, the United States Radium Corp. (here, “American Radium”) thrived by selling glow-in-the-dark watches with numbers hand-painted with actual radium. Workers, mostly women, were exposed to tremendous amounts of the radioactive material. They were even instructed to bring the brushes to a finer point by putting them between their lips. When workers began to sicken and die in conspicuous numbers, a handful of the rest brought suit against the company, which had maintained that the substance was safe.

Joey King (“The Act”) plays Bessie, one of three sisters to work at the factory. Her sister, Mary, has died before we meet the family, which does not suspect a lethal connection to her job. Abby Quinn (“Little Women”) plays the other sister, Josephine, a star worker with enthusiasm for ancient Egypt and for her work — until she falls mysteriously ill as well. Considering the company doctor’s humiliating diagnosis of Josephine’s sickness and the wealthy corporation’s resources, how can a group of impoverished legal novices prevail?

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“Radium Girls”: Based on a true story, women working in a factory using radium in the 1920s fall ill; their court battle would make history.

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Many facts and names have been altered. Despite this dramatic license, the film lurches toward cliché, with surprise witnesses and evidence sprung on the other side in the courtroom. A romantic subplot is thrown in, with questionable necessity. Co-director Lydia Dean Pilcher again shows an eye for intriguing historical material (she also directed this year’s “A Call to Spy”). However, as with “Call to Spy,” there’s a lack of texture and experiential quality to “Radium Girls.”

Low-budget period pieces face the formidable challenge of making the time and place feel immediate; “Radium” isn’t helped by the filmmakers’ habit of interspersing archival footage they can’t quite match with new digitally “aged” shots featuring their characters. Little attention is paid to the vernacular or physicality of the period. The depths of emotions aren’t plumbed — when one character announces a piece of her jaw has just fallen out, there’s puzzlingly little horror or panic among her loved ones.

Still, there’s a natural rooting interest in these betrayed workers. And it’s disturbing to see these women licking the radium-dipped paintbrushes because it’s akin to, well, licking radium. Given this was an era when companies were happily plugging their radium water as a cure-all and women had only recently gained the right to vote, the odds are definitely not in the plaintiffs’ favor. They have to convince a jury, and fast — the clock is ticking on their lives. A postscript to the film claims a Geiger counter activated above their graves would detect radiation for 1,000 years.

'Radium Girls'

Rating: Unrated (adult themes, gruesome effects of radiation sickness)
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Release information: Available in virtual cinemas October 23, 2020

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