Review by C.J. Bunce
If you’ve been watching Michael Apted’s ground-breaking Up Series from its first installments, you know each new chapter in the real-life time travel journey makes the viewer feel like he or she has also reached some kind of achievement with the arrival of the new episode. But the series of documentaries is not for the faint-hearted, filled with gut-wrenching views into participants’ lives, participants who feel like family after watching them over 56 years since their first appearance. So compelling and personal is Apted’s look at this select group of fourteen English boys and girls turned men and women, revisiting them every seven years of their lives since 1964, the documentary series is practically an interactive experience. With Apted passing away since the UK premiere last year, and the U.S. arrival of the latest installment–the eagerly awaited 63 Up arriving on BritBox via Amazon Prime this weekend–the question is whether this ninth installment is the last. Key members of the crew since 28 Up have expressed an interest in continuing the series in 2027, but until then expect this to be a bittersweet end for the series, which Roger Ebert called the noblest project in cinema history and among the ten best films ever made.
At last Apted addresses the thesis of the show to each participant, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” and asks whether they agree after decades participating in this unique social experiment. Apted was a researcher when working on director Paul Almond’s Seven Up! in 1964. Seven years later the 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 Seven Up! project. He would go on to direct the subsequent eight episodes over 56 years. The idea was to get a glimpse of England in the future year 2000 when these kids, the future leaders of England, were only seven years old. It is difficult to surpass the jolts and surprises of 42 Up, but 63 Up holds its own, although sadly viewers will say goodbye to one participant who has died, another is seriously ill, and another decided not to participate.
Although dozens of others have tried to copy the format of the Up Series in nations around the globe, it’s the original that was so deftly handled in the care of Apted’s sometimes sensitive, usually dispassionate, and a few times (as participants point out) off-base questions. Yes, at times Apted’s questions for the men focused on their views on careers (and here, Brexit), and his questions for the women centered on their relationships with men and family, and Apted had a history of seeming to try to foreshadow the future for individuals, but the bigger picture left behind is one that continually sucked in the viewer to answer along with them more important questions about life, happiness, success, challenges, fulfillment, and their roles in society. Apted realized years ago the two stars of the series and he again has bookended 63 Up with them: Tony Walker, the rough kid who wanted to be a horse jockey, and Neil Hughes, the sensitive boy who would drift away from England’s rigid, planned-out society. It is Neil whose story gets the climactic scene of this installment, albeit a bittersweet, typical low-key one. If you need a story of resilience, just watch Neil–and the others–over the course of the series.
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–and later proved to be–prescient of their lives’ future paths. Where the last installment was almost tranquil in its participants’ universal view of happiness and an acceptance of self, 63 Up returns to more of a rollercoaster of events, many tragic, just as you might find with any group of fourteen people. Individuals discuss their own regrets, and some participants continue to care for adult children and even their grandchildren, some still live on government aid (and some no longer do). They all seem to have reason to stop and reflect as they look toward what lies ahead for them–and this was filmed prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which almost begs for an update to see how they’ve all fared with 2020. In addition to one of the participants passing away a few years after 56 Up, another is seriously ill in his interview.
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, and Suzy elected to skip this segment, although she can be seen in a brief portion.
Again Apted intertwines his visit with Paul and Symon, a duo that is always exciting to catch up with. And Bruce always seems to go through the most changes from episode to episode. This is the first time nearly all the participants seem to acknowledge the value of the series to them personally in addition to its benefit to the world.
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 63 will look back and compare the Up group to benchmarks in their own lives. Those under 63 will reflect on where they are in comparison to each person. Where am I going and what lies ahead? If you haven’t seen any of the Up Series, make sure you watch each segment in order. Another kind of time travel, all installments are streaming now here at BritBox via Amazon Prime. 63 Up premieres this weekend in the U.S. here on BritBox via Amazon. It’s also available here at Amazon on DVD and Blu-ray, but note the version listed does not play on most U.S. players.