Michael Apted revisits the people who have grown up, and grown older, in this long-running, landmark documentary series.
After more than a half century, the “Up” movies can be as hard to put your arms around as they are to resist. The sui generis documentary project — the latest and ninth installment is “63 Up” — began in 1964 as a stand-alone production for Granada Television. The subject was class in Britain, as briefly seen through the lives of 7-year-olds from different families and socioeconomic circumstances. The 40-minute result could easily have been a didactic turnoff, but the black-and-white “Seven Up!” was a delightful, tender portrait of 14 lives in first bloom.
Jav Uncensored Remarkably, the filmmaker Michael Apted kept the project going and has revisited the original interviewees every seven years. (He started as a researcher on the first one, and has directed all the movies since.) Just as incredibly, most of the subjects agreed to continue the experiment with him, even as he pursued a career in features with dramas like “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Thunderheart.” In between fictional hits and misses, he has steadily returned to the “Up” series. As the decades have slipped away — as “21 Up” gave way to “49 Up” in an eye blink — he has revisited Tony, Sue and others, checking in with them as they grew up and grew older, developed acne and then potbellies, got married and had sweet children of their own.
Time passes but the movies have remained structurally consistent, which helps connect the chapters. As Apted speaks in voice-over, filling in gaps and providing some necessary connective tissue for the sections, we drop in on different men and women, or at least those still remaining. As in the past, Apted blends scenes from the earlier movies into the new material, a stark reminder of the passage of time. Life is short and messy, but the project, by virtue of its mission, consistency and narrative shape, smooths out the metaphoric wrinkles. The real ones remain etched in faces that, for faithful viewers, can prove very moving, partly because they hold up a mirror to yours.
Once again, Apted replays the signature tagline from the first documentary, a Jesuit adage: “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will give you the man.” I’ve always resisted the maxim, because it seemed deterministic, almost smugly confident that the lively, charming boys and girls in the original film were already fatalistically locked in a class box. And there has been consistency, absolutely, some of it predicted by the privilege that in 1964 had already smoothed away the world’s more obvious rough edges for a few participants. As the kids turned into adults, though, life happened. Chance and circumstances entered the mix as did some keenly felt struggles, including with health.
There’s great pleasure in revisiting this series, seeing who turned out just fine and sometimes better than you might have expected or hoped. Two of the most poignant subjects are Symon and Paul, who began the series living in a children’s home and have become the kind of men who make you regret your own shortcomings. It’s deeply moving to see how far they have come, which only makes you want to see where they will both be in seven more years. Of course the project’s other notable participant — and subject — is Apted. He was in his early 20s when he started working on the first film for “World in Action,” a weekly affairs program. In a 2013 interview timed to the last movie, “56 Up,” he said that he realized “when we do ‘84,’ I’ll be 99.” Here’s hoping.