In the eighth installment of Michael Apted’s epochal documentary series, his aging participants (one of cinema’s greatest assemblage of living characters) provide not just a telescope into the past but also a kind of primer for how to live, even as the specter of mortality starts to cast its shadow.
This was a film series that should have been nothing but a gimmick. 1964’s 7 Up was a short and none-too-serious look at a gaggle of 14 English schoolchildren from a variety of backgrounds. The narrator made a lark of it, intoning about the children’s styles of play and pointing them out after the other (“there’s Nicholas…and Tim”) as though he were identifying different species of animal in some amusing wildlife short. What ideology existed in the short seemed to come from the filmmakers’ reflexive expectation that the rich kids would be assured of powerful places in society, while the poorer kids would have a harder time of it. The three prep-school boys reciting in plummy tones the list of exclusive institutions they were sure to attend were set in direct contrast to the orphanage boy asking a simple question: “What is a university?” There were hints of something deeper here, particularly its version of the old Jesuit maxim: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” But it didn’t seem to be anything made for longevity.
Eight films on, director Michael Apted (who worked as a researcher on the first film) has created something for the ages. The Up series is like a living, breathing cinematic experiment. (More than a few of the people appear to feel they are being watched under a microscope, and resent it.) But after each seven-year delay, when Apted and his crew returns to interview those of the original 14 still talking to them, the drama of it increases in small increments almost scientific in tone. We see person turn not just from children into adults, but from characters into people. By the time that the current installment, 56 Up, comes around, most of those involved have left so much of themselves on the screen that the impending clouds of sickness and mortality begin to carry an almost unbearable weight.