Film Review: 56 UP

A dozen participants talk about their lives in the latest installment in Michael Apted's series of documentaries.

The latest in a groundbreaking series of documentaries that have followed a group of British children since 1964, 56 UP checks in with participants of the earlier films at they approach their 60s. More reflective than previous entries, 56 UP is also a richer, fuller, more emotional experience. It's hard not to think of your own mortality as you see these lives changing before you.

Made for Granada TV, Seven UP (directed by Paul Almond) was an attempt to show how the British class system affected children's opportunities. Michael Apted, a researcher on the original film, followed up with the participants in seven-year intervals, through adolescence and into adulthood. Now most of the children have families of their own; some are grandparents.

In the earliest films, Apted interviewed the children primarily in school settings. Today, these scenes make such an impression because of the children's innocence and their apprehensions about the future. The scope of later films expanded as the participants found careers and moved to new locations.

In 56 UP, Apted devotes around ten minutes to each individual. He has warm relationships with some, and prods them gently with off-camera questions. By now he has built up a wealth of material, seven films' worth, and can draw from footage that stretches over several decades. He mixes scenes from the time the subjects were teenagers to retirees, and can overlay comments from adults while we watch them as much younger individuals.

The results are mostly encouraging, even if they confirm suspicions that wealth makes life easier. For the most part, the children have become well-adjusted, relatively successful adults. Some are facing the deaths of loved ones, yet have largely escaped personal tragedies.
What's striking is how many of the children express displeasure with the series. Some complain that the films present their lives inaccurately. John, a successful barrister, dropped out of the series because he felt that viewers saw him as too upper-class. (He has returned in part to promote his charity work in Bulgaria.)

Shocked at the level of "malice and ill-will" directed at him, Peter, a former teacher, also left the series for several years. He's back now to help promote his band, The Good Intentions.
Apted profiles Neil, one of the most troubled subjects, early in 56 UP. In previous entries Neil was either homeless or destitute. Now he has become a lay minister and moderately successful politician. His journey through life most likely was helped by Apted's periodic intrusions into his privacy.

The participants in 56 UP are introspective but still guarded, spending most of their time discussing milestones rather than addressing actual issues. John and Andrew, a solicitor, raise concerns about the environment, and everyone talks about the economy. But the consistently good behavior on display can get a little tiresome.

Apted saves the last slot for Tony, a jockey-turned-taxi driver and perhaps the star of the series. Tony is one of the few who can argue with the director, and in their exchanges some of the issues mentioned in the first film emerge again, notably race and poverty. Tony's evolution from Seven UP to 56 UP is perhaps the most surprising of all the subjects, and will leave viewers eager for the next entry.