Not since Ken Russell followed up his X-rated The Devils with his G-rated musical, The Boy Friend, has a filmmaker so thrown critics and audiences off-balance with such a seeming about-face. What is the director of Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and 28 Days Later… doing making a charming fantasy about a little boy who sees and chats with saints and finds a bag of stolen money?
The answer, as was the case with the Russell film, is simple: pretty much the same thing he’s always done, but in a mostly different key.
Stylistically, Danny Boyle’s films are very much of a piece. They’re constantly — and playfully — inventive, filled with little touches that invariably surprise the viewer by offering a unique way of looking at things. And the fact that Millions looks much like its predecessor ought to surprise no one who has followed Boyle’s career. The film may set out to charm the viewer, but it does so with a bracing quality, and it’s set in a world that mixes whimsy with reality to create the same sense of heightened reality found in Boyle’s other films, only in a more positive sense.
More surprising, perhaps, is the thematic consistency that lurks beneath the surface of this apparently lightweight, “feel good” movie. Not only is there a rich (and very welcome) vein of cynicism, but there are actually aspects of the film that can be seen as outgrowths of themes touched on in the earlier films.
It’s not all that large a jump from a hero who is dead certain that he’s done something wrong by coldcocking a priest (even though said priest is a ravenous, zombie-like horror) in 28 Days Later… to a youthful hero who matter of factly natters away with saints. At the very least, the earlier scene suggests (as do others in Boyle’s filmography) the basically Catholic mindset that comes to the forefront here.
As noted, the humor in Millions is often quite cynical. Sharpster older brother Anthony (newcomer Lewis McGibbon) learns that telling people your mother is dead gets you things, and guileless younger brother Damian (newcomer Alex Etel) has to be restrained by his dad (James Nesbitt, Bloody Sunday) when he assumes that the Latter Day Saints must be part and parcel of his own world of saints. Cynicism surfaces again in the depiction of St. Clare (Kathryn Pogson, Brazil) as a worldly smoker (and I’m not sure it’s tobacco she’s smoking) may owe something to the chain-smoking, coarse-tongued Virgin Mary in Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy, but the part takes on a tone of its own, and is even more surprising here.
Similarly, a distinctly bitter tone is evidenced in the depiction of the difficulties of “doing good” in a world where the community policeman (Pearce Quigley, The House of Mirth) blandly informs you that because it’s Christmas and you live in a good neighborhood, you’re almost certainly going to be burgled.
All of these elements are within the realm of Boyle’s past work, making this seeming departure of a movie nothing of the sort. And that’s a pleasant surprise in a film that could so easily have drowned in treacle.
What I find most surprising, however, is something that seems to have escaped the notice of most critics — namely, that Millions is a reworking of Shallow Grave set in childhood.
Consider: Shallow Grave tells the story of a group of flatmates who find themselves in possession of a bagful of illegally obtained money that’s being sought by underworld figures. When their mysterious new boarder dies, greed ensues, and the film follows the group’s descent into paranoia, outright madness and even murder. In Millions, two brothers find a bagful of stolen money that’s being sought by the thief, and they have markedly different ideas about what to do with it, causing no small degree of friction between them — the younger having altruistic notions, the older being happily greedy.
The similarities are hardly coincidental, and Boyle deliberately evokes the earlier film by staging one scene in an attic. At bottom, it’s the same story — only it’s told in lighter terms and to a different end. Don’t, however, be misled by the concept of “lighter terms,” since — along with the charm and the engaging comedy — there’s a very serious side to the film that concerns the boys’ reactions to the death of their mother (Jane Hogarth, Brit TV’s Coronation Street) and their father’s burgeoning relationship with another woman (Daisy Donovan, TV’s Poirot: Death on the Nile).
Unfortunately, the film is cursed with one of the worst trailers I’ve ever seen. It not only gives away part of the film’s punch line, but it’s also apt to make you feel like you’ve seen the whole movie in two-and-a-half minutes. The fact is you most certainly haven’t seen the whole movie; there’s a wealth of detail the trailer never gets near, and quite a few questions it never gets around to posing.
So forget the impression the trailer may have left, as this is a rich and rewarding film that could never be summed up in a couple minutes. Directorially, it’s exciting. Emotionally, it’s engagingly warm, funny and magical — without being gooey. Overall, it works as both a further development of the director’s oeuvre and as a stand-alone film.
If there’s any fault to be found with Millions, it lies with John Murphy’s score, which occasionally sounds like a knock-off of Danny Elfman’s Edward Scissorhands score. But so many composers ape Elfman these days that it seems almost pointless to complain. The score works, but it is a bit distracting — especially in a film that’s otherwise so very much its own. Rated PG for thematic elements, language, some peril and mild sensuality.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke