Will somebody please start giving Danny Boyle the props he deserves?
I was finally, belatedly, able to catch up with Millions last night, and, aside from the film being lovely and touching and all that, I was bowled over by just how Danny Boyle-ish it was, and by how much I meant that as a sincere and laudatory compliment. Trainspotting has long been one of my favorite films, and I think I paid to see 28 Days Later in the theater twice because I liked it so much, and for a few moments, I considered the possibility that part of the reason I enjoyed Millions as much as I did was because his directorial tics (those kinetic opening shots, the cozy lilt of Scottish accents, his penchant for casting gorgeously round-headed leading men) simply felt familiar and thus safe. But, nah, I enjoyed it because brutha knows what he's doing.
As I started churning over in my mind some of the most resonant aspects of the above-mentioned films (as well as Shallow Grave), I realized that one of Boyle's main strengths as an auteur (oh, that word) is his emotional intelligence about family (both biological and socially constructed). Accustomed as we are to being fed ham-fisted, sitcom-esque depictions of families and friends that come across as collections of people who mean more to an unskilled writer or director's agenda than they do to each other, it's so rare and refreshing to see a group of actors assembled to actually function and relate to each other as a Group. Boyle has a keen understanding of the entropic self-loathing that keeps unhealthy relationships afloat, as well as the deep well of feeling that's usually buried underneath the soured interactions and general disgust that pollute bonds that have long outlived their expiration dates. He is also masterful at using actors capable of giving the camera a character's entire complex interpersonal back story in a few simple words or gestures (case in point: has there been a more powerful father/daughter moment on screen recently than the scene in 28 Days Later when Brendan Gleeson has about two seconds to convey to his daughter how much he loves her before he changes into a zombie?).
Millions is concerned with an actual, biological family that we follow much more closely than we do, for example, Renton's parents in Trainspotting or even Frank and Hannah in 28 Days Later, but, similar to the family units from those films, we see this unit living through a moment of panic. Yes, it's the panic of finding a sackful of British pounds that they must spend and/or distribute before the deadline for the changeover to the Euro, but it's primarily the panic of carrying on after their wife/mother's death. (A familiar trope of dark, Brothers Grimmish fairy tales that are of a piece with Boyle's sensibilities.) The attendant emotions of that experience are a perfect vehicle for a continuation of the paranoia, hallucinations, and slowly creeping dread that are more easily recognizable as his stock-in-trade as a filmmaker. But it also allows him to more explicitly address the spiritual yearning (ahem, "choose life") that is usually so far under the radar in his movies that even the characters themselves would likely deny it. It takes bollocks of bloody steel to risk talking about religion in a specifically Christian context in a movie these days and to pull it off with a flair worthy of Salinger that leaves no taint of Gibson behind. But when little Damian has a bedside conversation with St. Peter about the miracle of the fishes and loaves and when water flows from a well in the African desert (both as a baptism and a benediction) in the film's final shots, the subtext, while not particularly subtle, is powerful and deeply felt.
Though I don't remember much of anything about it, I know I did see A Life Less Ordinary in the theater when it came out in late '97 (at the late, lamented Von Lee in Bloomington, where I also had the good fortune to see other personal favorites Hilary and Jackie and Rushmore in their initial runs), and I sheepishly admit to blindly following popular opinion in my failure to ever see The Beach. However, I now feel I have some DVDs to rent and some cinematic research to do to determine if Danny Boyle is, as I suspect, one of my favorite directors out there right now.