I didn’t know that St. Clare of Assisi was the patron saint of television, but there you go. In Millions, British director Danny Boyle’s playful adaptation of the Frank Cottrell Boyce novel for young readers, Clare herself explains to seven-year-old Damian Cunningham (Alex Etel) how she got the gig: It all started one Christmas when she was too sick to go to Mass, but a visionary miracle enabled her to see and hear Mass at a church some miles distant anyway.
“It keeps me busy,” the saint adds confidentially, with a puff on her cigarette. (“Are you allowed to smoke then?” Damian asks. Claire’s answer: “You can do what you like up there, son. It’s down here you have to make the effort.”)
Actually, Damian probably knew that whole business about Claire’s vision of Mass. He knows the lives of the saints like other boys at his new school know stats on their favorite footballers. While other boys in class, responding to a teacher’s question about people they admire, chatter about Sir Alex Fergusen and Wayne Rooney, Damian makes an indelible first-day impression by citing the legendary tale of the mayhem caused by flying fragments of a giant spiked wheel meant as the instrument of execution for St. Catherine of Alexandra (fourth century) when it exploded at the saint’s touch, killing and blinding bystanders.
I didn’t know that story either. My 10-year-old daughter Sarah did, though (in fact, she says Damian got it a bit wrong). She knew the stories of all the saints in Millions. Because I have a graduate degree in religious studies, people often come to me with religious questions, but when it comes to the lives of the saints, in our household Sarah is the uncontested authority. She knows the last words of Perpetua and Felicity, and every snappy retort of Bernadette of Lourdes to everyone who challenged her. She and Damian would have a lot to talk about.
Damian’s favorite resource for the saints is a website called
totallysaints.com. There actually is a site at that url, but it turns
out to be only a barely disguised promotional site for Boyce’s novel,
with scant information on the dozen or so saints that appear in the
book and nothing more. In real life, Damian would do better at
Given his expertise on the subject, Damian naturally recognizes the saints when they appear to him: St. Charles Lwanga and companions, St. Francis, even St. Peter, among others. Unfortunately, none of these haloed visitors is ever the one visitor Damian would most like to see; nor, when he asks them, have they heard of a St. Maureen — a very new saint, she would be. Damian’s mother died not long ago, leaving Damian’s father (James Nesbitt) to care for Damian and his older brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon).
One day a man appears whom Damian doesn’t recognize, and who seems not to have a halo. Realizing that the stranger is no saint, Damian’s next thought (since he hopes to be a saint himself) is that perhaps the man is poor and Damian can give him money.
Damian, as it happens, has a lot of money to give to the poor. Hundreds of thousands of pounds sterling. It all dropped out of the sky one fine day on Damian’s cardboard-box hideout — not far from where Damian first sees the mysterious stranger poking around.
And that, in a backwards sort of way, is the setup for Millions, faithfully adapted by veteran screenwriter Boyce from his own first novel. Damian and Anthony moving with their widowed father into a new suburban development near Liverpool, but Damian really lives in a world of his own, a world of mortifications and martyrdoms, of visions and virgins (though what exactly a virgin is he’s not entirely sure).
Damian is sufficiently aware to realize that most people don’t go around seeing and talking to saints; so when a duffel bag stuffed with money literally falls out of the sky on top of him, he has to make sure his brother Anthony can really see it before he’s entirely sure it’s quite real.
Practical Anthony immediately has his own ideas about what to do with the money, which naturally conflict with Damian’s more pious notions. There’s a lot of cash, though, which gives them room to throw money in a number of different directions. Then there are other complications. Damian discovers that giving money to the poor can be easier said than done, and finally there’s the revelation about where the money really came from.
The theme of the difficulties and dangers inherent in unrighteous mammon, a key element in the book, is a perfect fit for Boyle, who has already done at least two films involving bags full of money (Shallow Grave and Trainspotting), and the film does admirable justice to the story on this point.
Some things have been lost: The dozen or so saints who appear in the book have been halved, for instance. The film also loses much of the intensity of Damian’s religiosity. For example, it’s not as clear in the film that Damian’s cardboard fort is precisely a hermitage, or that he engages in acts of extraordinary mortification perhaps more suited to consecrated religious than a young schoolboy, much to the bewilderment of teachers and others.
Reading the book, one must conclude that Damian is probably obsessive-compulsive and clinically scrupulous. Yet the book, like the film, has great sympathy for its young hero, and doesn’t condescend to him or regard his spirituality and mortifications as simply morbid. That in itself is an extraordinary achievement in a popular novel, let alone one for children. Damian may be somewhat misguided, but this doesn’t mean he can’t be a saint.
As for the saints themselves, the great thing about them is simply that they are there. They don’t really say much particularly profound (apart from a low-key line or two from Clare rhapsodizing about the infinitude of heaven) or particularly annoying (apart from an unfortunate speech by St. Peter in praise of generosity by way of the demythologized version of the feeding of the 5000). But Millions is less about the saints themselves than about the purity of Damian’s faith and desire to please God.
Content-wise, Millions is almost wholly family-friendly, but young viewers must be discerning enough to grasp that not everything the main characters do is all right — such as a fleeting scene in which Damian finds his not very pious father asleep with his new girlfriend (to the father’s quite proper chagrin), or when Anthony briefly studies online photographs of women modeling brassieres (leading, rather sweetly, to a discussion of breastfeeding).
Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (doing a 180 from the barrenness of Dogville) visually capture the wonder and vitality of boyhood with rich imagery and playful camera effects. The wonderland feeling of playing in a house under construction fills a scene in which the Cunninghams’ future house assembles itself around the boys in super fast-forward. A luridly imagined heist scene in the minds of young boys is painted in hyper-saturated colors and maximum contrasts.
The CGI halos on the saints are an especially nice touch. Not the globe-like nimbuses of light of medieval and Eastern art, which are always round regardless of the viewer’s angle, these are flat, golden Renaissance-style disks floating above and just behind the saints’ heads. I like the way the halos don’t stay quite perfectly synchronized with the saints’ heads, but sort of follow their movements attentively.
Millions is a rare and special family film: a moral parable rather than a morality tale; a film that combines high ideals and hard realities; a story of hope and faith in something more than Santa Claus. Which is not to say that Santa Claus, or rather St. Nicholas, doesn’t show up. But when he pops on a bishop’s mitre rather than the familiar red Santa hat, it’s clear we’re not in Hollywood movieland here.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.