Review by C.J. Bunce
Michael Apted’s ground-breaking Up Series is almost interactive in its immersion of the viewer into the lives of 14 children from the lower and upper classes of London as they grow and spread across the world over the next 50 years. At the beginning of the first documentary from 1964, 7 Up, the purpose of the first show was revealed:
“Why do we bring these children together? Because we want to get a glimpse of England in the year 2000. The union leader and the business executive of the year 2000 are now seven years old.”
The initial episode interviewed the children about their thoughts and dreams. The children ranged from lower class kids, some who appeared sad and distant yet hopeful, to the kids from wealthier means who seemed almost prescient of their lives’ future paths. Seven years later Michael Apted, the now well-known director of Gorillas in the Mist, The World is Not Enough, Coal Miner’s Daughter and Gorky Park, was just out of university, and at 22 he revisited the original 7 Up project. From there he has returned to interview and share with us the status of these people every seven years in this unique time-capsule-meets-time-travel voyage. In June 2012 the eagerly awaited 56 Up revealed what had happened to everyone in the intervening seven years to television audiences in its principal release in England. First Run Features began a limited release of 56 Up in the States and Canada last month and this weekend the broader distribution begins in movie theaters across North America. Check our earlier article here to find out about local movie listings of 56 Up in your area.
Thanks to First Run Features, borg.com was given a special screening of 56 Up this week. We’re happy to report that just as fans of Apted’s work have come to expect, 56 Up stands up to its prior entries. The gut-wrenching feeling as you watched the rollercoaster ride of certain individuals’ experiences from past episodes is happily less present as the Up crew reaches 56 years of age. Where the past two installments carried underlying themes of encountering traumas of life, like divorce and deaths of family members, we can glean from the older and wiser individuals a universal view of happiness and maybe tranquility now, an acceptance of self, and less real regrets about past decisions throughout their lives than discussed before. That isn’t to say that the impacts of a typical daily life, including a devastating UK recession, are not very real to the subjects of the film. Yet despite some participants now caring for adult children and even their grandchildren, living on government aid, and encountering other negative changes of circumstance, when asked by Apted even the most challenged of the group are thankful for what they have.
Like each new day and year of your own lives, you will not be able to predict what will happen as you peek into the lives of Neil, Suzy, Bruce, Jackie, Symon, John, Sue, Nick, Lynn, Paul, Andrew, Peter and Tony. Only Charles continues to have been cut from the series since 28 Up, by his choice. A nice surprise is a brief look at Peter, absent since 35 Up because of backlash from the press over his negative comments about the Margaret Thatcher regime. Peter unapologetically returns to 56 Up solely to promote the band he plays in with his wife, yet his answers to Apted’s questions are interesting and insightful and his presence will be welcome to fans of the series.
This time around Nick appears with Suzy, who swore in several prior installments not to return. They seem to take life a bit less seriously than before as they chat with each other, but not surprisingly they continue offering criticisms of the life-long project directed at Apted, which Apted shares with viewers. Neil also has a lot to say about his mis-perception by viewers over the years and we seem to learn things about Neil’s mental health some may have long-expected. Symon and his wife seem to have the busiest of lives and also seem to have possibly led the most noble of pursuits in their years, having fostered dozens of children, some who appear in the film–all this despite not having limitless resources.
I was surprised by, and probably enjoyed the most, the seemingly normal life of Bruce, whose entry in the film with his wife and two boys produces actual laugh-out-loud moments. His wife is also the only contributor in the series who seems to truly appreciate the value of being documented like this over the course of an entire lifetime. Australian Paul and his wife seem the least changed over the years and very happy with their lot in life. Despite their similar backgrounds, lawyers Andrew and John seem to have arrived at entirely different places in life at 56. Lynn and Jackie seem to have the toughest of circumstances at this time in their lives. Sue, on the other hand, seems to have made out quite well. And the film ends with cabbie Tony, who once aspired to be a jockey, returning to his original racetrack, which has undergone its own transformation over the decades. Tony reveals the impact of the series on the subjects, retelling the story of picking up “spaceman” Buzz Aldrin in his cab, and having a fellow ask for his autograph–Tony’s, not Buzz’s. Check out our earlier borg.com review of the Up Series up to 56 Up and why the Up Series has been called one of the best uses of cinema ever made here.
As with prior installments, viewers will be completely taken with each person, and those viewers familiar with the series will easily remember the ups and downs edited together from past episodes, included to guide new viewers and remind us of each person’s path to today. Those older than 56 will look back and compare the Up group to benchmarks in their own lives. Those under 56 will reflect on where they are in comparison to each person. Where am I going and what lies ahead? Success is a key subject Apted addresses. You cannot help but ask your own questions. Who am I the most like? Where do I fit in? And you compare each person with people you know. Am I more or less successful than she? Am I more or less happy than he? The questions don’t end there, and 56 Up, like its earlier versions, will leave you wanting to return to the series for re-viewing again and again. Apted turns 72 years old this Sunday, February 10, and you cannot help but hope he, and his subjects, are around for 63 Up and beyond.