3½ stars (out of 4)
One of the more delightful and satisfying family movies I've seen recently is "Millions," a magical British film about two boys in a Liverpool suburb whose lives radically change after they stumble upon a lot of money.
It's a fable, naturally, a Christian morality play/fantasy about Mammon and the soul of man (and kids). But it's done with wide-eyed wonder, beguiling wit and imagination, gliding along with a fairy-tale lyricism that's never too obvious or preachy.
Part of the reason is the psychological and social acuity brought by its two sophisticated main filmmakers: director Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting") and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce ("Hilary and Jackie"). Definitely not chaps you'd easily imagine as creators of prime family fare, they prove immensely sympatico with each other and their youthful subjects, 9-year-old Damian and 11-year-old Anthony.
Beautifully played by Alexander Etel and Lewis McGibbon respectively, Damian and Anthony are refreshingly odd but believable. They've moved with their widower dad, Ronnie Cunningham (James Nesbitt of "Bloody Sunday") to a bright Liverpool housing development after the death of their mother (Jane Hogarth). They're a study in contrasts: Anthony, a well-organized mathematician/capitalist, and Damian, a distracted-looking dreamer obsessed with saints and miracles.
Damian was, in fact, communing with one of those saints in his little cardboard box playhouse by the railroad trackstalking to his vision of a tiny, cigarette-puffing St. Clare (Kathryn Pogson)when the loot dropped on him from the skies; not millions actually, but 229,320 pounds (more than $400,000).
That's more than enough. What Damian believes is a gift from heaven is actually part of the swag from a railroad robbery, accidentally hurled from a freight car onto the playhouse roof. And though Damian gets a visit from St. Francis himself (Enzo Cilenti), who suggests he give it all to the poor, the practical Anthony starts putting it to use. It's very near the time when pounds will be replaced with euros, and Anthony cooks up a variety of schemes abetted by playmates and pals.
Soon the adults are involved, too: Dad Ronnie and his new girlfriend, bouncy charity worker Dorothy (Daisy Donovan), assorted other charitable claimants and, most menacingly, a nameless, sinister "Poor Man" (Christopher Fulford), who turns out to be one of the thieves. The complications pile up, as do the heavenly intercessions, until finally we get a solution to this financial windfall-turned-moral hurricane.
For a "little" movie, it has two huge subjects: how money corrupts and how spirituality and imagination can rescue you. It's refreshing to see a movie that convincingly argues that money doesn't and shouldn't solve all problems. Damian talks to saints but is no sticky-sweet paragon, nor is Anthony a cardboard mercenary. As the two cope with their unaccustomed cash flow, family rifts, the pursuing thief and their souls, we get a sense of moral crisisand of the way it can finally, magically, be resolved.
The boys are both wonderful, especially Etel, whose sincerity and gravity anchor the movie. And though the adults seem less fully dimensional, because we're seeing them as the kids do, they're still played with sparkling spontaneity. The whole film, which even boasts some clever CGI work, has a shine.
Mostly that's due to Boyle and Boyce, and of ace Dogma 95 cinemtographer Anthony Dod Mantle ("Celebration"). Scottish and Irish-bred Danny Boyle has always been a filmmaker with unique audacity, creative zest and a truly dark sense of humor. And though he's made films of varying quality, energy and imagination permeate all his work, including the terrifying modern noir "Shallow Grave" (also about a windfall), the horrific zombie sci-fi thriller "28 Days Later" and the incandescent Glasgow heroin chronicle "Trainspotting."
Boyce may be best known for his astonishingly witty, prickly script for the Manchester rock music history "24 Hour Party People." These filmmakers take very complex, adult themes and treat them with a youthful spirit and inventionand that's the bubbly mix they bring to "Millions."
They strike it rich. The treasures Damian and Anthony find may be a bit illusory, but their movie's motherlode is something to treasure.
Directed by Danny Boyle; written by Frank Cottrell Boyce; photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle; edited by Chris Gill; production designed by Mark Tildesley; music by John Murphy; produced by Andrew Hauptman, Graham Broadbent, Damian Jones. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:37. MPAA rating: PG (for thematic elements, language, some peril and mild sensuality).
Damian Cunningham - Alexander Etel
Anthony Cunningham - Lewis McGibbon
Ronnie Cunningham - James Nesbitt
Dorothy - Daisy Donovan
The Poor Man - Christopher Fulford
Community Policeman - Pearce Quigley
Mum - Jane Hogarth
St. Peter - Alun Armstrong