49 Up (2007)

“Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” – Saint Francis Xavier

Initially commissioned in 1964, by Britain’s Granada Television for the World in Action documentary series, the Up Series began as a simple examination into the lives of a group of disparate seven-year olds. Plucked from virtually every stratum of British society the series was always concerned with the subtle (and not so subtle) ways a society imparts its rigid class structures onto future generations. From the very first installment the economic, political, and social undertones were always at play. Over time, though, the series evolved into an understated and more personal meditation on the nature of identity and the healing, redemptive powers of humanity.

Chronicling the charm of youth, the troubles of adolescence, and the many challenges of adulthood the Up Series stands as one of the great achievements in all of documentary filmmaking. 49 Up, the seventh installment in this acclaimed British documentary series returns as the subjects near midlife. For those who have followed the series since the original documentary you will no doubt greet this latest chapter in the lives of Tony, Neil, Suzy, and the others with both an eager interest and a quiet apprehension.

Voyeuristic guilt on the part of the audience may seem peculiar in this age of ubiquitous “reality” TV, but the specific intimacy of observing a person’s life every seven years from childhood onward brings with it a certain responsibility to protect the authenticity of these individual lives. It must be remembered that these were not contestants who willingly signed up for a lifetime role in the cultural landscape of entertainment. These were small children nominated by teachers, headmasters, and charity social workers to take part in a simple documentary about being a seven-year old in ’60s Britain.

Obviously, the achievement of the first documentary spurred interest and created demand for subsequent follow-ups. With the success of the Up Series has come a repeated invasion and exasperating intrusion into the lives of these participants that was never intended, expected, or desired. Among the series’ most fascinating aspects has been not only the ambivalence with which many of these subjects greet the project but, also, their outright frustration and anger.

It would be a shame for people who have not seen the earlier installments of this series to dismiss 49 Up for fear of not following along with the storylines. Michel Apted and his longtime cinematographer and editor, George Turner, do a wonderful job of succinctly summarizing each subject’s history. Deftly blending footage and interviews from each of the previous films they create a visual timeline that serves as both a convenient reminder and a gentle invitation to go back and discover earlier chapters. Additionally, the DVD offers an incisive interview with Apted, conducted by Roger Ebert, which updates and expands upon what material included in the film.

One of the great lessons from the Up Series is that it not only teaches you, but more importantly shows you, the error of assuming knowledge about the future. As children, these participants were blissfully unaware that they were selected, in part, to represent a very specific type of Briton. Of course, over time they came to realize the expectations not only of their family and peers but also, of society as a whole. Tony was the simple, good-natured East Ender who grew up to be the jovial Cockney cabbie. John was the humorless upper-class child who rightly inherited his place at Oxford and became a successful barrister. Suzy was the shy boarding school girl who was traumatized by her parents divorce, became painfully cynical and withdrawn by the age of 21 and settled, rather contently, into family life by the age of 28.

Inevitably after viewing each documentary, the audience will make predictions about where these people will be in seven years time. The path of these participants’ lives seems so obvious and so well defined. There will be vagaries, of course, but the map has been drawn and as time progresses life seems more a matter of routine, than something that can be greatly affected by force or by will. The evident foolishness of such thinking is wonderfully illustrated in the poignant life of Neil.

From 28 Up on through to 42 Up the life of Neil, the lost and troubled outsider, seemed to be following a predictable and immensely sad trajectory. An itinerant and lonely man plagued by the cruel impulses of mental illness, Neil seemed destined to an early and tragic death. Therefore, his participation in 49 Up, and the development of his life over these last seven years is not only reassuring but genuinely surprising. While each of the lives featured in 49 Up is broadly defined by the vague sketches of their specific script, the beauty of the series, and of life in general, is in the intimacy of the details.

By point of fact, the Up Series falls under the banner of documentary, but what Michael Apted has achieved over the last four decades with these films is something that transcends mere reportage or narration. In this exhaustive record of ordinary life, Apted has managed to illuminate the subtle wonder of life’s banality. Through the gentle observation and simple exploration of life’s quotidian nature, the Up Series achieves a dramatic relevancy that simple fiction or melodrama could never equal.

RATING 8 / 10
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