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'Millions': On the Money

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 18, 2005; Page WE45

DANNY BOYLE made "Shallow Grave," "Trainspotting," "The Beach" and "28 Days Later," a body of films that has introduced us to yuppie murderers, heroin junkies and flesh-eating zombies.

So it's a surprise, and a deeply pleasant one at that, to watch "Millions," in which the leading character is an endearing 7-year-old boy who sees and speaks with saints. Damian (Alexander Nathan Etel) does all this, I should add, in a chirrupy northern English accent.

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"St. Francis of Assisi, 1181 to 1226?" he says as one of many haloed figures looms in front of him. He says the name and dates with the parroted precision of a Catholic boy reciting catechism.

Damian realizes he's the only one who sees these saints. But he accepts the gift with matter-of-fact innocence, patiently tolerating the presence of his bossy, money-obsessed, 9-year-old brother, Anthony (Lewis Owen McGibbon), and enjoying the devotion of his widowed father, Ronnie (James Nesbitt).

The threesome has just moved to a neighborhood not far from Liverpool. And Damian tries to adapt to his new school. But he tends to alarm classmates and teachers with lurid tales of Saint Catherine, the one who was condemned to die on a spiked wheel and -- never mind. He's more at home in his cardboard house, erected by the railway line. That's where he's alone with his imagination, those visions and a large heavy bag that suddenly comes crashing into his private hideout.

It's filled to bursting with English pounds, more than 229,000 of them.

"Where'd you get that?" his older brother demands.

"You can see it, too, then?" asks Damian.

Both brothers have markedly different ideas about what to do with their sudden haul. Anthony wants to spend it and keep it a secret ("Taxes," he explains). But Damian considers the cash a direct drop-off from God and therefore the domain of the poor, or, as he puts it, "the poo-ah."

Without getting into the story any further, let's say that "Millions," written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, is set on the eve of England's intended conversion from pounds to euros, when the nation is in a frenzy to spend its soon-to-be-obsolete sterling. And the children's quandary -- what to do with all that lolly? -- ties in perfectly with what's happening across the country.

Witty, sweet and charming but never sappy, the movie joins the heady company of such extraordinary child-centered movies as "The 400 Blows," "My Life as a Dog" and "Au Revoir Les Enfants" ("Goodbye, Children"). In all these films, reality is seen from a young perspective, but there is no condescension in the exercise. These are stories with children, but they set no limitations on who can watch. Adults and children alike can see "Millions," as well as religious and nonreligious viewers.

Indeed, "Millions" is a spiritual movie in its own way: It invests its full stock in Damian, his visions and his outlook on the world. That's what makes things so magical, even in scenes that seem, for a moment, as though they might be going too far.

When Anthony, the less innocent of the two, finds an Internet ad for brassieres, for instance, he stares hard at an image of bra-covered breasts. He centers on the nipples protruding through. Damian wants to know what the dark spot is. Anthony tells him. Damian asks what they're for. For feeding babies, Anthony says. Damian wants to know how Anthony would know that.

"I remember her doing it to you," replies Anthony. He's talking about their mother, a woman they miss and revere, and one they assume is in heaven. This scene's just one example of the movie's fascinating mix of textures: realistic, bold, comic, fairy tale-ish and devotional. It's an extraordinary experience, perhaps not for everyone. But for the right crowd, "Millions" will prove not only engaging but enriching.

MILLIONS (PG, 98 minutes) -- Contains mature themes, some peril and sensuality but ultimately nothing too objectionable. Some ears may have difficulty with the northern English accents. At Landmark's Bethesda Row and Loews Georgetown.

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