Director : Danny Boyle
Screenplay : Frank Cottrell Boyce
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Alexander Nathan Etel (Damian), Lewis Owen McGibbon (Anthony), James Nesbitt (Ronnie), Daisy Donovan (Dorothy), Christopher Fulford (The Poor Man), Pearce Quigley (Community Policeman), Jane Hogarth (Mum), Alun Armstrong (St. Peter), Enzo Cilenti (St. Francis), Nasser Memarzia (St. Joseph), Kathryn Pogson (St. Clare), Harry Kirkham (St. Nicholas)
In Danny Boyle's whimsical modern fable Millions, two young boys who have recently lost their mother are the recipients of a huge bag of money -- 256,000 British pounds, in fact -- that literally falls from the sky. It is originally found by 7-year-old Damien (Alexander Nathan Etel), the younger and more idealistic of the two. Because he thinks it is a literal gift from God, he feels the money should be distributed to the poor, whereas his 9-year-old brother, Anthony (Lewis Owen McGibbon), immediately sees the material possibilities -- everything from cool sunglasses, to jet skis, to a posh uptown apartment.
From this simple description, Millions sounds like a basic altruism vs. materialism exercise in cinematic preachiness, but part of the film's fundamental magic is the way it both engages and skirts such an obvious set-up. Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, a frequent collaborator with Michael Winterbottom (he penned The Claim and 24 Hour Party People), is too smart to let his high-concept foundation get ruined with treacly preaching and holier-than-thou condescension. Rather, he uses the money-from-the-sky set-up to deepen a compelling character study of a family in transition.
Damien and Anthony's father (James Nesbitt) has moved them to a new home in one of those cookie-cutter communities in the suburbs so they can start a new life. Clearly, the father and the sons have moved past the stage of grief over the death of their wife/mother and are just trying to get on with the daily routines of life. Anthony, ever the conniving schemer, has even learned that casually mentioning to people that his mother recently died brings all kinds of benefits, namely free stuff. It is exactly this kind of darkly humorous detail that keeps Millions from sliding into sticky sentimentality. Its sense of comedy is just edgy enough to make its lessons go down much easier.
The introduction of the money sets in motion a complex interplay of events that constantly challenge Damien and Anthony's (and eventually their father's) moral compasses. The choice of what to do with the money is complicated by the fact that the film is set on the eve of Britain's transition from pounds to Euros. As the money is all in pounds, it is only a matter of time before it isn't worth the paper it's printed on. Thus, if something is to be done with it, is has to be soon.
Much of the film's success can be attributed to the two young first-time actors who play Damien and Anthony. In particular, Alexander Etel, with his ruddy cheeks and almost bizarrely perfect outlay of freckles, is exactly the kind of kid who, in the wrong hands, would be so cute as to be disgusting. However, as directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later), he is a perfectly realized hero, a child of such idealism and genuine care for others that he qualifies as his own miracle. Damien is kept company by a host of Catholic saints, about whom he reads voraciously. They are his imaginary friends, but Boyle presents them in such a wonderfully matter-of-fact fashion that they come across as being just as real as any other character in the film. The saints, each of whom has a shiny, translucent halo over his or her head, dispense advice to the young boy, and he treats them with a mixture of awe, immediately noting their name and vital stats when he sees them, and the kind of comfortable camaraderie reserved for old friends.
Boyle has always had an affinity for outsiders, and each of his films has centered on one, whether it be a disillusioned American traveler adrift in the world (The Beach) or a guy who wakes up to find he has been in a coma while the rest of the world was consumed in a zombie apocalypse (28 Days Later). Thus, it is not hard to see why he is drawn to Damien, who nobody quite understands. Anthony constantly tells Damien to stop all the "weird" stuff, like talking to saints no one else can see, and at one point he loses his anger and calls Damien a "loony." This balance between Damien's saintlike behavior and the way it is constantly misunderstood or rejected by those around him goes a long way toward humanizing him.
Boyle also brings to the film a delightful visual mischievousness. Working with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Dogville), he gives Millions an exaggerated visual appeal, using high contrast imagery, a constantly roving camera, and digital effects to render the complex interplay of reality and imagination that defines the worldview of children. The film is so charged with this sense of imaginative wonder that even the scariest moments, most of which involve a shady criminal who comes looking for the loot, have a dreamlike charge. Boyle doesn't soften this aspect of the film; in fact, the child's-eye view of the world at times heightens the terror, particularly one gasp-inducing moment when Damien sees a hand shoot out from the ceiling above his bed, as potent a nightmare image as one could find in any horror movie.
Millions does have a lesson in the end about using our resources to help those in need, but it doesn't provide this lesson at the expense of understandable human flaws. Damien is exceptional precisely because he is the only character who doesn't see the money as a way to enrich himself. Yet, the other characters are not derided for their greedy inclinations. In fact, the film has a great deal of fun when the father, the father's new girlfriend (Daisy Donovan), and the two sons go on a spending spree to use up as much of the cash as they can in one day. The appeal of such a scenario is undeniable, and the filmmakers respect our intelligence and our humanity by not downplaying this appeal. It's not necessarily the right thing to do, but it's hard to imagine doing otherwise. The saving grace of Millions is that it never for a second pretends that everyone can be saints.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2005 Fox Searchlight Pictures