(2012)4Mark DemingYou think you know someone after 49 years, and then it turns out they're still capable of surprising you. In 1964, the UK TV network Granada Television produced a Paul Almond-directed documentary about 14 British children from a wide variety of social and economic backgrounds, founded on the notion that by the year 2000, they would represent the mainstream (and possibly the leadership) of England. The film was called Seven Up, and in 1970, director Michael Apted, an assistant on the first film, revisited the kids at age 14 for a follow-up, Seven Plus Seven. Since then, Apted has been catching up with the lives of his subjects every seven years; 56 Up is the latest installment in the series, and while in most respects Apted's approach to the film remains the same, many of the people he's been following have developed a love-hate relationship with the project that's been documenting their lives, and they're not afraid to speak about it.
Part of what makes the Up series endlessly fascinating is the way Apted allows us to literally watch these people grow from childhood to late middle age in a matter of minutes, cross-cutting between the many interviews he's shot over the years, and on this score, 56 Up is as compelling as any of the previous entries. The stakes are often different in this film; while over the years we've seen these people grow up, get married, have kids, and sometimes get divorced, at age 56 they're dealing with issues like aging parents, adult children, and becoming grandparents. One of them, Jackie Bassett, has even gone into early retirement after contracting a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis, though cutbacks in social services in the UK have forced her to look for a job despite her health.
However, one recurring subtext in 56 Up is how these men and women feel about the film series that has opened their lives up to the world, and made them minor celebrities in the process. Tony Walker, who grew up wanting to be a jockey and later became a cab driver, mentions having astronaut Buzz Aldrin as a fare; when someone asked for his autograph while Aldrin was in the cab, it occurred to him that to some people, he was more famous than the second man on the moon. John Brisby, who seemed like an insufferable upper-class twit in the early episodes of the series, dropped out of the project for a few years. While he seems like a warmer and more generous person in 56 Up, in which he speaks at length about his charity work, he's clearly bitter when he touches on what he sees as the false impression of him created by the films, which didn't mention he was raised by a single mother after his dad died when he was 9, and that while he attended Oxford, he did so on a scholarship. Neil Hughes, the most troubled member of the group (who has been homeless, wrestled with depression and instability, and is still in search of a proper job), talks bluntly to Apted about how the film has given audiences a picture of him that is worse than the reality, though Neil is still clearly unhappy with his lot in life. And Peter Davies, who quit the series after his remarks about politics in 28 Up briefly got him in hot water, returns here for an amusingly pragmatic reason - - he sings and plays guitar alongside his wife in an acoustic country-rock band, and he believes appearing in 56 Up will give them some needed publicity.
Just as significantly, while most of the films in the Up series have focused on the ways its subjects have grown into the society around them (or in Neil's case, largely failed to do so), 56 Up subtly turns the tables and shows the participants discussing how the changing face of Great Britain is impacting their lives, largely in the wake of the global economic crisis of 2008. Jackie lost her disability benefits, Lynn Johnson lost her job as a librarian, Nick Hitchon has relocated to the United States because he believes British schools are no longer interested in innovative research, Bruce Balden grew frustrated with teaching in the UK's public school system and is now on the staff of a religious academy, and Tony, whose prescient remarks about the economy in 49 Up foreshadowed the events of 2008, gripes about how hard it is to find decent fares and that an investment in a holiday complex in Spain has gone sour for him. And the phenomenon of adult children moving back in with their parents is common among Apted's subjects, with every happy story balanced by one of people just getting by. 56 Up has the ingredients that have made this one of the most remarkable film series of all time, but Michael Apted is also finding new wrinkles in these stories, and he isn't afraid to let their own perspectives on the series become part of the tale. Once again, Apted has brought us one of the most intriguing and rewarding documentaries in quite some time. One can hardly wait to see what the "kids" will have to say when they turn 63.
In the latest installment of this long-running documentary series, which profiles 14 British citizens from different socioeconomic backgrounds every seven years, the filmmakers catch up with their subjects at the age of 56.