Millions (2004)

When it’s on: Thursday, 26 July (11.35 pm)
Channel: BBC1
IMDb Link

The first entry on this site for a film screened on BBC1 (it’s arrived!) is one entirely out of context with its place in the schedule. Millions is the closest thing Danny Boyle has ever made to a family film, so its appearance at nearly midnight is baffling and almost as daft as the fact it’s a Christmas flick being shown in the middle of (what passes for) the British summer!

It’s also Boyle’s forgotten film, or the nearest thing in his Filmography to one. I did a bit of cross-referencing on IMDb to back this up, and sure enough less people have rated Millions than A Life Less Ordinary, his one directorial effort that I didn’t enjoy. At 6.3, the latter is one of two films – the other’s The Beach – that fall below Millions’ 7.0 approval rating, which suggests not many people have actually watched the thing and those who have thought it was decent enough.

A fair assessment? Well, Millions is no outright classic. For a start, it isn’t quite sure what it’s trying to be. The hard edge and adult themes mean it doesn’t sit well in the Children’s section, whilst the focus on its primary school protagonists imply that’s precisely where it belongs. Perhaps that’s the film’s problem, because looking beyond the uneasy categorising it’s great fun, rather suspenseful and ultimately about as poignant as anything Boyle has put his name to.

The story concerns Anthony and Damian, whose mum has recently died. Together with their dad (played by James Nesbitt), the boys move into a new housing estate in Widnes, in an attempt to start over. But as time passes, it becomes clear the passing ever hangs over the family, Damian coping by ‘hanging out’ with various Saints, about whom he has an encyclopaedic knowledge. and then into the boys’ world comes a bag of money, literally crashing into Damian’s cardboard house by the rail track and apparently dropped from the heavens. It’s the millions of the title,  money they start spending, Anthony sensing the business opportunities that come with wealth whilst Damian tries to focus on good causes. Only the cash hasn’t come from nowhere – a mysterious man (sinister Christopher Fulford) starts sniffing around for it, a trail that leads him to Anthony and Damian…

All this is set against a Britain that is going to convert to the Euro in the New Year, a change celebrated by a winning series of television adverts featuring some brilliantly realistic cameo performances by Leslie Phillips. Further fun is to be had from Damian’s chats with the Saints. St Clare of Assisi surprises him by being a smoker and informing him you can do anything ‘up there.’ Alun Armstrong turns up as a Geordie St Peter and explains the reality behind the feeding of the 5,000 miracle. And then there are the spending scenes, which threaten to turn the corporate-minded Anthony into a pint-sized pimp, whilst Damian makes various ham-fisted efforts to be charitable.

Boyle takes to the material with a light touch, the creepy presence of Fulford’s ‘poor man’ only steadily growing, though towards the end his level of threat becomes almost unbearable. The bits based around the school’s Nativity play are only too charming and authentic, whilst there’s a nice feeling of the family having a hopeful future as Nesbitt sparks a relationship with a kindly charity worker played by Daisy Donovan. It’s an altogether charming piece of work, though the attempts to depict a family in real mourning are too realistic to let it slide into drippy sentimentality. The two child actors, in particular Alex Etel as the angelic Damian, are fantastic.

Millions: ***

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