Damian Cunningham has the face of an angel — calm and cool blue eyes perched above freckled cheeks and a benevolent grin — which is only appropriate for a seven-year-old boy who speaks with the late, great saints, among them Peter, Joseph, Claire and, of course, Francis of Assisi. Damian sees dead people, all right, but they come not to taunt or haunt the lad, who has already been through enough with the recent death of his beloved mum. Instead, they wander the Manchester, England countryside to grab a smoke, tell a joke, and advise young Damian (played by newcomer Alex Etel) what to do with the pounds of pounds that have quite literally landed on top of his head. Either he can squander his newfound bag of money, as his older brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) would prefer, or he can donate it to the penniless. For Damian, there is no choice at all: The loot, which crashed to earth from the sky above, or from a train speeding by on nearby tracks, should be passed out to those in need — pennies from heaven.
Millions, this charming, warming fable from director Danny Boyle, marks not only the filmmaker’s move into telling children’s stories — it’s pure Disney, down to the dead mommy who abandons her children to a loving, well-meaning, and occasionally inattentive father — but also his maturation as a storyteller. With its plot involving someone else’s money stashed away in an attic for safekeeping, Millions recalls Boyle’s Shallow Grave, released a decade ago. The new film is no less stylized than its predecessor, but it’s absent the murders played for laughs and gore spilled for giggles — the cheap nyuks of icky yucks made famous by Hitchcock and gratuitous by Tarantino. In Shallow Grave, money turned friends into enemies into corpses; it bought nothing but trouble.
Since then, Boyle has had his successes (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later … ) and failures (The Beach, A Life Less Ordinary), the latter films almost as notable as the former, if only because they suggested how easily a visionary could lose sight of his talents. But none suggested a film as poignant and sincere (and as funny) as Millions, populated by a true believer, Damian, who is made not to look like a madman (or, rather, a mad child) or martyr, but simply a sweet, righteous lad for whom the right thing is the only thing. Damian believes the money is a gift from God because, as he explains, “Who else would have that kind of money?”
There isn’t a malicious or malevolent bone in this movie’s body, even when a sneering train robber shows up to collect his dough. In this setting, where a kind widower (James Nesbitt, as the boys’ dad Ronnie) can find an even sweeter woman (Daisy Donovan) with whom to begin a new relationship, evil doesn’t linger for too long. It pays a quick visit, serves up a scare before bedtime, then is dispatched before it can do any real damage.
Boyle, working from Frank Cottrell Boyce’s storybook screenplay set during Christmastime (and as England makes the transition from the pound to the euro), has made a film about faith that doesn’t proselytize or condescend or judge, even when Anthony lashes into Damian for talking to figments of his imagination. It inspires us with a gentle tone; it moves us with a casual push. And the grief shared between the sons and their father is palpable and familiar: When Damian comes into his father’s room and says he can’t sleep in his new room, Ronnie pulls back the covers and reveals that he has been sleeping with his arm draped over two pillows hidden beneath the sheets. It’s a fine, quietly heartbreaking moment.
What’s most remarkable about Millions aren’t just the performances, which are uniformly wonderful, or the visuals, but its decency. Arriving at a moment in time when religion is once more an off-limits topic, so dangerously divisive, Boyle and Boyce push aside all the noise and nonsense and get to the most basic tenet of any religion: sacrifice. Millions is irreverent about religion — St. Peter shows up in Damian’s room to dispel the myth about the Bible’s fish-and-loaves story, because what really happened is more inspirational than a story in some old book — but proves it’s possible to be devout as well.
The director is rightly hailed as a brilliant stylist, but more often than not, the audience is wowed by the visuals, to the point of feeling distanced from the action. Boyle has always been a wowee-lookit-me filmmaker, whether he is savoring the sight of a corpse splayed out on a crimson bedspread or following a junkie down the loo and into the watery muck below. Here, at last, the gloriousness of his compositions — Damian and Anthony lying in a path of dirt as their new home constructs itself around them, children clad in blue sweaters and yellow shirts bouncing giant red balls around lush green fields — serves only to draw us into his fairy tale. Millions has the look of a book you read to a child on the verge of sleeping and dreaming. It’s vibrant and verdant and heartbreakingly inviting, begging you to escape into a lovely tale in which children, through a simple act of faith, find their own heaven on earth.