Director Michael Apted checks in on England’s kids for a seventh time
By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by Michael Apted
In 1964, a progressive British television production company decided to make a documentary ostensibly examining the class system in England. Producers gathered up a group of 7-year-old schoolchildren from diverse backgrounds and interviewed them about what their lives were like and what their futures might be. On its own, “Seven Up!” would certainly have been a well-regarded benchmark of naturalist cinema. But, seven years later, British director Michael Apted--who had served as a researcher on the original film--found himself talked into making a sequel. Though he’s had a good deal of commercial success (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist, The World is Not Enough), Apted has found time every seven years to hook up with the subjects of his first film gig. The result has been one of the most enlightening experiments in the history of film, an ongoing documentary about, well, life itself.
In 2005, the kids from “Seven Up!” turned 49, prompting Apted to shoot (what else?) 49 Up. Much like author John Updike’s lifelong fictional biography of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; Rabbit At Rest and Rabbit Remembered), the Up series provides a prism through which we can view humanity during various crucial stages of life.
At 49, none too surprisingly, most of the subjects from the original documentary have settled down. Class differences that once separated poor Eastenders from wealthy prep schoolers have all but vanished. Life choices have solidified. Grandchildren are now doted on. For most, retirement looms.
Of course, this might not be the most exciting stage of life in which to start an in-depth examination of humanity. Newcomers to the series might do well to dig into some of the earlier entries before trying 49 Up on for size. It’s not that you’ll be lost. The film provides plenty of flashbacks to the earlier films to put each of the participants in perspective. Still, watching the relatively happy outcomes and gentle lives of the people in 49 Up feels more like a well-earned epilogue then it does a fresh new chapter.
If, on the other hand, you’ve witnessed the past 42 years of these people’s lives, 49 Up is essential viewing. We check in on Tony, who wanted more than anything to be a jockey in his youth. Paunchy and a bit balding, but still possessing his mischievous smile, he now lives in a blissful state of semiretirement in a beachside expat community in Spain. Neil, having weathered a bout of homelessness and mental illness in middle age, is now a Liberal Democrat politician running for a small-town city council. Farmer’s son Nick is now a happily remarried physicist and professor in Wisconsin. Watching 49 Up is a little like getting a Christmas card from a long-lost friend.
In some ways, this is among the most self-conscious of the Up films (an unusual claim about a film series that consists of little more than people being interviewed by the director). It seems that, having done this six times previously, the subjects are a little more reflective this time around. Jackie, the outspoken divorcee who nervously chain-smoked through her 21 Up interview, confronts Apted. She upbraids the director for focussing on her troubled past and not on her hopes for the future. “This,” she testily declares, “may be the first film in which people see the real us and not the us you’ve chosen to show.”
From a certain perspective, it is a valid gripe. Obviously, no film (not even a documentary shot every seven years) can fully capture a person’s life in all its facets. Still, the Up films have done more in that respect than just about any other documentaries. At one point, a flashback to 1970’s 7 Plus Seven finds one of the schoolboys wondering what the point of it all is. “We’re just ordinary people,” he complains. He’s right. But that’s pretty much the point. None of the people featured in this film (films?) are superheroes or presidents or world-changers. They’re just random people, selected for the simple fact that they were all 7 years old in 1964. Their stories may not be exotic or unique or even all that interesting at times. But they’re real. And real life is something that movies would do well to pay a bit more attention to.