3.5 / 5 stars
Creating a documentary film every seven years about the same dozen or so people has its own inherent challenges, especially as more time goes by, and more footage is amassed. How do you stuff a summary of their lives into a 2-hour movie when there’s more to say with each passing year? Well, with the eighth chapter of this incomparably impressive series, director Michael Apted has the compiling and editing down pretty well (he was a 22-year-old researcher for the first episode, and will turn 72 this weekend). But there’s a storytelling hurdle with 56 Up that the soft-spoken Apted and his team may not have prepared for: A natural lag in character development. (Click on the movie poster for a closer look.)
It would have been hard to see it coming, considering that no one’s ever attempted a project as ambitious and auspicious as this. A fleshed-out realization of the Jesuit assumption “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” the Up series began in 1964 with the Granada Television show Seven Up!, featuring interviews with U.K. youngsters of differing upbringings and status. (The director was Paul Almond, by the way, who’s been recognized with life achievement honors in his home nation of Canada.) Apted has visited with each child (person? human?) every seven years since, creating an almost indefinably important record of life in the 20th and early 21st centuries, as well as vital updates to filmmaking styles, technology and storytelling.
And that last element, the story, is the rub with 56 Up. In short, the difference between age 49 and age 56 doesn’t have the impact as the chasm between other ages experienced in the series. Apted’s subjects have the physical changes, of course–with the far less affluent showing it faster than others, sadly–and there’s a greater tendency toward the self-awareness and resignation that comes with age. But fans of the series may be otherwise surprised by the update’s distinct lack of stopping power. These folks, now beloved by a following of moviegoers and TV viewers, have settled into life. Yes, there’s a wonderful story there, an illustration of the kind of peace, even through troubling times, that we can all hope to achieve, but the shocking contrast between the way people look and act at age 14 (7 Plus Seven, 1970) and 21 (also the film’s title, 1977) is gone.
Apted is experienced enough to continue building that life progression via the layering of archival footage from previous films, and by making this episode one of the more honest of the eight. Right in line with the tone of current pop commentary, there’s a meta mode to 56 Up, with more interview time devoted to the series itself. Neil, the once-troubled, once-homeless local politician, talks with resentful astonishment about the unearned adoration he’s received from the media. Lifelong cabbie Tony laughs at the time another driver asked for an autograph. And Peter, a fellow who dropped out of the series and became news for speaking out against the government, has returned for one reason only: To promote his band.
Think of this tactic as Apted’s tentative creep into “reality TV” land (ironic as hell, considering the impact the series has had on “reality” productions). His questions have always been pressing, and subjects have expressed their anger with him on camera before. But the inward look at the Up series as part of the narrative, maybe a necessary angle for us to get closer to these people, is an interesting modern update.
One can imagine the next Up episode to have a dose more heart and heartbreak as the gang pass by middle-age and begin to contemplate their coming elder years. How lucky we all are, and will be, that someone was prescient enough to create this document of life, an appreciation that often makes up for any time the series loses a bit of skip in its step. So how long will it go? In a recent interview, Apted, who is now inexorably linked to his subjects and passionate about their lives, predicts an 84 Up. At the time of its production, he will be 99.