With each new installment of the stellar Up documentary series, the drama grows deeper, the wrinkles rewrite previous years full of promise and problems. It’s flabbergasting to think that 49 years ago, a group of British filmmakers decided to explore class distinctions and an old Jesuit proverb (“Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man”) to see if, over time, either would prove to be accurate. As with any unexplored hypothesis, things turned out to be a bit more complicated than anyone could have imagined. Set against the social change of the ’60s, the economic terrors of the ’70s, the greed-based prosperity of the ’80s and the new activism of the ’90s, we’ve watched as our carefully selected subjects moved from pre-adolescence to equally awkward adulthood.
Now, in this eighth installment of the series, all except one participant has returned to give long-running director Michael Apted the sketchbook version of their lives over the last seven years. Some favorites — jockey turned cabbie Tony, lost soul Neil, the quiet and self-effacing Paul — all seem to be settling in to advanced middle age quite well, the various traumas and trials of life chalked up to the passage of time and a family (or the lack thereof). Others, like the “boys of privilege” — John and Andrew — seem to argue against their success by placing their prosperity in perspective via charity work (the former) and activism (the latter). For the rest — Woolworth girls Jackie, Lynn, and Sue, the idealistic Bruce, former rich snot Suzy, farm boy turned physicist Nick, and the sole minority member of the group, Symon — it’s the same rollercoaster of life’s expectations and reality’s stark truths.
One surprise is the return of long MIA participant Peter, who dropped out after 28 Up when comments he made about Thatcherism and the lack of respect for teachers struck some in the media the wrong way. The criticism kept him away… that is, until a desire to promote his Americana folk group found him back in the fold. Another interesting turn rests with Lynn who, while visibly angry over the way the government treats programs for the needy and handicapped, states that she is happy (and happily married for over 30 years). Indeed, one of the most compelling parts of any Up installment is the ever evolving commentary on relationships and how they endure/end. For some, like Jackie, men are merely trouble. For others, like Tony, the cloud of adultery and the changing times seem to bring he and his wife both farther apart and closer together.
In fact, the only thing missing from 56 Up (and other films in the series, for that matter) is the concept of interaction. We rarely see the subjects together, as in their original seven year old setup. Instead, they get their 20 minutes of talking head treatment, usually intercut with a day out seeing the sights, or in more depressing sequences, visiting their aged parents/those who’ve passed on. Oddly enough, Suzy and Nick buck this trend, talking to Apted together (which, at first, wrongly suggests they are a couple). While there are snippets of moments from obvious reunions (some even staged to repeat previous tableaus), we get the distinct impression of people who’ve moved on, who’ve grabbed the reins of life’s rich and unruly pageant and held on for dear life. For some, the grip has a bit of give. For others, it’s a never-ending chore.
The end result remains a masterpiece of social commentary and cinematic ambition. It’s also a safe bet that, by the time 63 Up rolls around, a couple of our cast members will no longer be with us. It’s an inevitability which begs the question that many of the participants complain about — to wit: how can a viewer really know their life when all they’ve caught is mere glimpses of it over the decades. For them, there is no universality in the story. It’s all very individualistic, if not private. For the viewer, however, it’s a window into our shared human experience, and a terrific one at that.