Danny Boyle (2004)
IF FILMS CAN INSPIRE US to live better, you’d think that for people of faith, the most inspiring movies would be Christmas movies.
Oh, my child, if only it were so.
There’s The Nativity Story, but there’s also Kirk Cameron Saves Christmas (yes, that happened). I used to love It’s a Wonderful Life until it became more ubiquitous than a Happy Honda Days commercial. But before you call me a Scrooge, know that my husband’s annual force-viewing of Love, Actually brainwashed me into loving it, actually: Hugh Grant dancing. Emma Thompson crying. I caved. Well, not completely. I still have to leave the room when Keira Knightley finally gets hold of Walking Dead Guy’s stalkerish wedding video. “They’re all of me,” she gapes. We know, Keira, we just saw it.
Maybe I am a Scrooge. But there’s one Christmas movie I can watch any day of the year. Maybe that’s because it’s not about Christmas; it’s about a boy who’s lost his mother. That film is Millions, written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and directed by Danny Boyle.
It’s December in northern England. Damian, our seven-year-old narrator, tells us that in a fortnight Britain will convert its currency from pounds sterling to euros. After that, their Brit cash will be worthless. (This didn’t happen. Imagine Brexit if it had.) Money does drive this story. But as Damian says, “turns out it wasn’t about the money after all.”
Damian’s mother, Maureen, has recently died. His father moves Damian and his older brother Anthony out of their old house, full of memories of Mum, into a shiny new tract home. While Dad and Anthony revel in rising home equity, Damian gathers the empty boxes from the new appliances, drags them to a nearby field along the train tracks, and builds a fort. He imagines it’s a rocket that can blast him far away or a hermitage where he can talk to the saints.
Yes, Damian sees the saints. And his saintly visions are harshing Anthony’s mellow. “Keep off the weird stuff,” Anthony warns. “Otherwise you won’t fit in.” But Damian doesn’t fit in. He retreats to his cardboard hermitage, where Saint Claire of Assisi appears. “Do you ever come across a Saint Maureen?” he asks. She hasn’t. “Then again, it is infinite up there. Absolutely bloody infinite.”
Lo and behold, a giant bag of money falls right into his fort. It’s a sign from God! When Anthony arrives, Damian asks him whether he can see the money. “Sometimes you see things, and other people can’t see them.” But the money is real. 229,520 pounds in cash.
While Anthony goes on a spending spree, Damian sets about doing what the saints would do: giving it away. A nineteenth-century Ugandan martyr visits Damian in his fort and transports him to a current-day Ugandan village, where the people are thirsty and praying for rain. “You don’t need fancy hospitals to make life better,” the martyr says. “Just a well. And you can build one for as little as one hundred pounds.” The next day, Damian’s school is visited by a charity that builds wells in Africa! Praise God! Damian slips a thousand pounds into the charity bin.
When Anthony learns the real source of the money, he forces Damian to hear it: a train robbery. Damian is devastated. His world of saints and miracles is collapsing.
One of my favorite moments is when Saint Peter visits Damian, who is despondent over the real source of the money. Peter tells him about the miracle of the loaves and fish. “Every single bastard one of them had their own food, looking after number one. But as that plate went round, they all started to share. The plate got back to Jesus, and it’d still got the fish and the loaves. Jesus says, ‘What happened?’ I just said, ‘Miracle’. At first, I thought I’d fooled him. But now I see it was a miracle, one of his best.”
I don’t question the biblical account. But isn’t it a miracle when God opens our eyes to see the holy in everything?
One of the robbers comes looking for his missing moneybag and closes in on Damian, and everything converges at the school’s nativity play. Will the saints deliver Damian? Are they even real? This is, after all, Damian’s story, and it’s a child’s view of the world—filled with primary colors, sunshine every day in December, and saints you can talk to. Us? We grow up and put away our childish things. Right?
That’s where Millions gets to me. It compels me back to my own childhood, before faith became a discipline or a concept that I had to explain with phrases like “thin places.” When you’re a child, the whole world is a thin place. You don’t walk by faith; you walk by sight: your eyes are wide open to what adulthood teaches you not to see. But it was long ago that I saw those things, before my eyes were distracted by money and status and—ugh—relevance, before cynicism and logic convinced me those visions were nothing but my imagination.
A decent movie might distract you with dancing or crying or hot girls unaware of their hotness. A great film shows you what’s real that you’ve forgotten. Maybe it’s now that your eyes are shut, and back then they were open.
Susan Isaacs is an actor and writer with credits in TV and film. She holds an MFA in screenwriting from USC. Her memoir, Angry Conversations with God, was named a top book of the year by Publisher’s Weekly and Relevant magazine.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.