Money’s just a thing, and things change.
— Damian (Alexander Nathan Etel), Millions
“Now it just seems like science fiction,” muses screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce as he and director Danny Boyle watch the start of Millions. They’re recalling their efforts to get the film done in time to seem timely, should Britain take up with the rest of the globalizers and make the Euro its official currency (it has not, yet). But if the film doesn’t reflect that reality, it certainly goes to a deeper, more convincing and more compelling reality, namely, the wondrous ways children view the world.
As they watch the film unfold, Boyle and Boyce consider the “speeded up childhood” experienced by their protagonists, seven-year-old Damian (Alexander Etel) and Anthony (Lewis Owen McGibbon). The children must contend with a duffle bag full of British pounds that drops literally out of the sky onto Damian’s cardboard box playhouse, located near the train tracks; it’s been dropped off a passing train by some too-clever-for-their-own-good robbers, and is immediately accepted by the devout Damian as a gift from God.
The boys decide to hide the bag under a bed in their new home in the Manchester burbs; they’ve just moved with their newly widowed, slightly sad and delightfully whimsical dad, Ronnie (James Nesbitt), in a flurry of moving lorries and boxes and spanky-white walls that opens the movie. (Dad’s not exactly settled into the whole single parent business, encouraging Damian on his first day at his new school, “Be clever, you like to be the cleverest, yeah?”). Anthony advises not burdening dad with the news. According to Anthony’s solemn and knowledgeable assessment, he’ll only be upset, because of “the tax.”
And so the boys endeavor to deal with the money themselves. This even as they are also negotiating the strangeness of their new environment and neighbors, who include a house full of Mormons and a local cop who gathers them all together for an instruction on how to avoid being robbed during the upcoming Christmas season; this brisk, comedic scene underlines for the boys that they should be worried about money and all things material, not only in possessing and protecting them, but also in their more “spiritual” aspects. (On their commentary track, Boyce and Boyle take special glee in this scene: “Any British film has got to mention ‘cups of tea’ and have a scene in a toilet,” laughs Boyle. “Certainly,” he goes on, “Every one that I’ve made in Britain has got those ingredients.” Boyce ensures the point is made: “And trains!” And yes, we call remember what is perhaps the most famous toilet scene in any film made anywhere, in Trainspotting.)
The boys’ worry is exacerbated by the awesomely tacky, “seasonally” themed ads on the telly that remind them daily of the upcoming change in the national currency. According to the film’s smartly ironic take on the very concept of “currency,” the Euro is about to be instituted in two weeks, which will leave the boys with a bag full of valueless paper. Their approaches to the problem differ according to age and temperament. Damian is a major fan of the Catholic saints — he knows them all by name and story, and they visit him in imaginary form, made visible here. His first encounter with the money, in fact, occurs while he’s being visited by Clare of Assisi (Kathryn Pogson). While smoking a joint in glorious white-filtery light, she explains why she’s the patron saint of television: “If anyone needed me, I’d send ’em a vision, sort ’em out… I was like human television.” At which point the Nike duffel bag hurtles through the air and lands atop the box: plop.
As much as Damian is able to see past the material world (indeed, he eventually imagines seeing and being comforted by his mum), Anthony focuses on the here and now. He comes up with a list of items to buy: videogames, cell phones, new shoes, and finally, following some internet research, real estate. He also gives away a few bills to his friends, making them swear to secrecy (and so, to friendship).
Damian’s pondering continues to take him in other directions — as Boyle suggests over a scene where Damian is freeing a box full of pigeons, the music, indebted to Danny Elfman and Prokofiev, links “children to something magical.” Damian takes advice from St. Francis of Assisi (Enzo Cilenti), who recalls that his own first act as a saint was freeing birds, and his second was washing a leper. Seeing Damian’s consternation at this idea, Francis advises that he can “just help the poor,” close enough. For his part, St. Peter (Alun Armstrong) won’t reveal his ideas about what Damian should be doing: “I can’t say too much about this, because of that whole free will thing.”
Millions includes the occasional real worldish obstacle, testing Damian’s resolve and mettle. One of these comes in the form of a scary stranger, plainly “poor” (Christopher Fulford). When Anthony sees his little brother speaking with this man, he steps in and warns Damian, “People are weird. You’ve got to be more careful. You shouldn’t really talk to them.” But it’s too late, as Damian has revealed the general information that he has “money,” and Scary Guy means to have it.
No matter what any adult wants, however, Millions sustains a vibrantly colored, enjoyably lively view, fantastic to reflect Damian’s perspective, literally short and practically limited. Consistent with this view, the child’s generosity eventually does give away the secret. At school, when he and classmates are asked by a nice lady, Dorothy (Daisy Donovan), “Who feels sorry for poor children?” all their hands shoot up into the air. “That’s the correct answer!” she exclaims, then proceeds to ask them for their lunch money, to be sent off to help poor children in Africa; Damian contributes a wad of bills. Though Anthony is horrified that their secret will now be out, Boyle observes at this point in his commentary that such moments illustrate his hope that the “cynical era” during which he made Shallow Grave seems over. “Whatever you think of, kind of, Blair and Brown,” he says, “We have reintroduced the idea that we’re all in it together in some way, and it’s not just about individualism and selfishness. So, to look at that bag of money, you needed a different twist on it really, and I thought doing it through the kids was just a great idea… Because you’re not really looking at kids. You are, but you’re really looking at yourself.”
While the movie is understandably in love with Damian’s broadly munificent approach, it is also sympathetic to and intelligent about his dad’s more earthbound concerns. The child’s view helps to make the “adult” issues clearer. From the surreality of religious dictates to the politics that shape and are shaped by a consumerism, the movie reads commercial culture as inevitable (today’s kids, says Boyce, “know the prices of everything“) but also not evil in itself. It’s just a fact of life, to be understood and sorted out. The movie treats these issues seriously, and resists the pandering of so many “kids’ films.” Instead, it manages a sophisticated breakdown of global economies and national identity, filtered through a child’s brilliantly naïve perspective.