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'Millions': Manna From Heaven's Dark Side

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 18, 2005; Page C05

As a subject of movie study, virtue has never done too well. The rare biopics of saints tend to go heavy on the sanctimony and holy water (and all that organ music!); virtue, 14 feet tall and in color, is seldom as intriguing as vice.

Thus it's something of an astonishment to encounter a movie about virtue that's first-rate and very funny to boot, if it eventually turns somewhat intense. It's about a small saint in a secular world struggling to do good not because he's so damned superior and enjoys it so much but because that's his nature.

Alexander Nathan Etel, left, and Lewis Owen McGibbon are siblings with a lot of cash in the surprisingly sinister children's movie. (Giles Keyte -- Fox Searchlight Pictures)

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Damian -- child actor Alexander Nathan Etel is superb in the role -- is just a good kid. Saints visit him now and then, though the movie suggests this is not so much because he is of the morally select but because he desperately needs to believe in an afterlife to sustain the idea that that's where his mum has gone. Inventive, curious, clever, freckly, without a nasty bone in his tiny body, he happens to be playing rocket ship in cardboard boxes arranged aerodynamically in the tall grass when, kerplunk, a miracle happens, right there in the north of England. It's a Nike bag, flipping through the air, and it intercepts spaceship Damian there in the tall grass by the railroad tracks. It's full of money -- a quarter-million pounds in cash.

Grown-ups immediately understand that a chunk of change bouncing around like that almost certainly has a suspicious background and carries with it, at the very least, the suggestion of dark complexities ahead. In fact, one of the sources of the considerable suspense in the film is the difference between the child's inability to read clues and the adult filmgoer's sure knowledge of ugly things in this world. Damian, for example, pays little attention to the trains that hurtle by like 9,000-millimeter tracer bullets just 10 feet from his space vehicle, but every parent in the theater went tense at the proximity of huge, powerful vehicle to child. Then, as it turns out, Damian doesn't want an iPod or a skateboard or a PlayStation, he just wants to give the money away to some idealized version of "poor people," without realizing that while they may be poor, they are still people.

His counselor and the movie's resident cynic is his older brother, Anthony (Lewis Owen McGibbon), a math genius and dyspeptic 58-year-old grump locked inside the body of a 12-year-old. Anthony figures the angles and buys the toys and starts a posse; Damian just tries to make people happy with pizza and presents. The setting is the Manchester suburbs, a raw new tract house where Damian and Anthony and their decent pop, Ronnie (James Nesbitt), have just moved, to get away from the old place, which was too painfully filled with memories of Mum.

For a long time, director Danny Boyle, working from a screenplay by old pro Frank Cottrell Boyce, is content to play the situation for mild if engaging comedy. Usually it sets Damian's naivete against Anthony's cynicism for laughs, but Boyle never cranks the relationship up into sibling bitterness. Anthony is content to see the financial windfall as something of a lark for both boys, not an opportunity for himself alone, though when he buys his mates clothes and sunglasses and arrives at school at the center of a bikecade, like a U.S. president surrounded by Secret Service agents, it's a funny image.

Then there's Ronnie, the boy's decent bloke of a dad. Amiably played by Nesbitt, he's also mostly interested in goodness and love, particularly if a little of it comes his way. A subplot chronicles his involvement with Dorothy (Daisy Donovan), some kind of charity worker who comes to the boys' school and meets Ronnie after Damian pitches a thousand quid into a spare-change pot and excites a lot of attention. But Dorothy's presence is one of the darker elements of the story, as it triggers jealousy and anxiety among the two boys, who aren't sure what to make of her.

In fact, for a so-called kids' movie, what's singular about "Millions" is its darkness. The MPAA required recutting to get it down to a more audience-friendly PG rating from its initial PG-13. I'm not sure cutting it was a good idea because the materials are naturally somewhat dark, and though its current version is less intense than the original, it's still quite frightening for very young or impressionable youngsters.

That's because a fellow shows up who wants his money back. He's a dark stranger, full of menace and intimidation, given to leaning close to poor little defenseless Damian and issuing orders with a sure implication that something hideous will happen if Damian disobeys. In a way, that plot harks back to director Boyle's first international success, 1994's "Shallow Grave," about three Glasgow yuppies whose new roommate died, leaving a stash of cash. They decided to keep it -- like Damian and Anthony -- and were visited by exceedingly violent netherworlders who wanted the dough back. In many of his other choices, Boyle has shown a fondness for dark views: His big hit was the scabrous "Trainspotting"; his most recent the end-of-the-world fable was "28 Days Later."

"Millions" never gets as violent as any of those but it is full of disturbing themes: penetration into homes, strangers dropping out of attics into children's bedrooms, the full force of an adult will against a child, a sense of mayhem in the shadows. Many will hate that; for me, it's part of a package that is somehow bracing in its honesty. The movie, though quite funny in parts, turns organically dark, and it refuses to paint a picture of a cotton-candy world. It prefers the real one.

Millions (96 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row and Loews Georgetown) is rated PG but includes dark and disturbing themes.

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