Millions (12A)

Alas, a movie more ordinary
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The Independent Culture

Of all the directions in which Danny Boyle could have taken his career, "family entertainment" is probably the least likely. Since the notorious Scots-Gothic double of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, he has juggled with screwball (A Life Less Ordinary), with literary bestseller (The Beach) and with low-budget zombie horror (28 Days Later). Disaster movie, space epic, even Western one could have envisaged from this magpie collector of movie genres. But a magic-realist heartwarmer about two Mancunian moppets? No, this is one I didn't see coming.

Of all the directions in which Danny Boyle could have taken his career, "family entertainment" is probably the least likely. Since the notorious Scots-Gothic double of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, he has juggled with screwball (A Life Less Ordinary), with literary bestseller (The Beach) and with low-budget zombie horror (28 Days Later). Disaster movie, space epic, even Western one could have envisaged from this magpie collector of movie genres. But a magic-realist heartwarmer about two Mancunian moppets? No, this is one I didn't see coming.

With Millions, Boyle hasn't forsaken his dark materials of old entirely, and the film begins, as so many stories of childhood do, in the aftermath of a bereavement. Nine-year-old Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) and seven-year-old Damian (Alex Etel) have recently lost their mother, prompting their dad (James Nesbitt) to move the family from their inner-city terrace to a bright suburban enclave with green spaces to roam.

One day just before Christmas, while Damian idles inside his cardboard den hard by the railway track, a bagful of cash seems to drop from the sky and into his lap. First, he and his brother count it up - nearly £230,000 in used notes - but then can't decide what to do. Anthony, the more enterprising and pragmatic of the two, thinks they should invest it, otherwise it will be lost to tax. "The government will take 40 per cent of it away," he explains, which is "nearly all of it". Damian, a dreamy, pious boy, believes the money has come from God, and so should be used to help the poor.

Their decision has to be a quick one, too, because Britain is on a countdown to the Euro: in 12 days' time sterling will no longer be worth a dime. The story is located some distance in the future, though what sort of future it could be where December looks like midsummer the film-makers have not made clear. But it will feature the reassuring sight of Leslie Phillips advertising the currency switch-over on TV. This element of make-believe becomes positively celestial in the visitation of saints to the devout Damian, who not only recognises each one but can also recite their dates.

"Keep off the weird stuff," his older brother advises him when they start at their new school, to no avail. These holy men and women might not have a ready answer when Damian asks them about his late mother, but they do provide practical support: when he has to make a getaway during his school nativity play the "real" St Joseph considerately steps in as understudy.

The writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce, is on to something in this portrait of inchoate Catholic fervour, though one feels bound to admit that Anthony's contrasting passion for BMX bikes, mobile phones and Game Boys is truer to the spirit of a 21st-century pre-pubescent boy. The god-fearing child is a throwback to a more innocent age, one in which the loss of a mother really might inspire this almost scholastic devotion to the lives of the virgin martyrs.

Damian feels very deeply, but we've no evidence of his being a reader, or of his knowing a priest or relative who might have encouraged him along this path. Again, it is much more plausible that his older brother uses their bereavement as emotional leverage: he knows that just telling an adult "Our Mam's dead" will get him more or less what he wants.

Damian's obsession is a symptom of what is wrong with so many contemporary movies about children. It is intolerable (to my ears, at least) to listen to kids spouting lines that are so clearly an adult's idea of what will be endearing (eg: social and intellectual sophistication), as opposed to what will be accurate (eg: shyness, boredom, banality of expression). Etel and McGibbon do the best they can, but they are hobbled by the knowingness of the script. Not one line of it sounds spontaneous. Boyle doesn't seem to notice this, allowing John Murphy's Harry Potter-like score far too much rope and using some favourite technical tricks, flash edits, fancy wipes and speeded-up montages included.

Where the money has really come from is the plot's slow-burning fuse, though the inquiring stranger with a face straight from a police artist's sketchbook offers an early clue. It seems the bag of cash was part of a train robbery, and now one of the gang is menacing Damian for its return. This is actually a reprise of Shallow Grave, another tale of a seemingly innocent windfall and the nemesis that attends its recipients.

Back then Boyle took a sadistic glee in tormenting his characters with the consequences of their own greed and ruthlessness, and the inevitable terminus was violence. I didn't miss that, but I do think this film could have used the threat of violence more suggestively. Damian, Catholic and motherless, is exactly the sort of child who would be susceptible to terrors, and Boyce's script misses a trick in making the bogeyman so ordinary. Wouldn't this kid have imagined somebody - or something - more apocalyptic?

Millions has the germ of a good idea in its fraternal struggle between capitalism and conscience, and one or two scenes deliver a telling punch. Most of it, however, is terribly ingratiating; even accepting that it is a fantasy the dialogue sounds very like an adult's shaky approximation of how children really are with one another. And in its effort to squeeze a happy ending from the implacable stuff of grieving and loss it ends up with a bad case of the cutes.

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