Apted revisits middle-aged subjects from Seven Up series

49 Up

on October 06, 2006 by John P. McCarthy
In 1964, a grand sociological and celluloid experiment began with the British television special Seven Up. A group of children from various backgrounds and English locales were interviewed about their past, present and future. The program -- inspired by the Jesuit educational motto “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man” -- aimed to learn how class and socioeconomic status shape a person's life. Every seven years since, Michael Apted, a researcher on the original show (and also a feature-film director), has revisited the interviewees. Another enthralling self-reflective layer has been added to the series, further cementing its status as a landmark in nonfiction cinema marked by conceptual simplicity and dogged execution.

It's not necessary to have seen any of the prior films. They work on their own since Apted doubles back and brings viewers up-to-date on each individual with narration and clips from earlier films. His culling process and filtering presence could never be described as passive. Rather, the experience can be compared to eavesdropping on an old friend's therapy sessions with an aggressive analyst: In this installment, Jackie, one of three girls from London's East End, accuses Apted of being condescending.

The vicarious pains and pleasures of watching a long-running soap opera are combined with the rigors of analyzing data about how Britain has and hasn't changed in nearly five decades. Apted follows up on themes and issues that arose in the previous films, prompting his subjects to muse on their mistakes, struggles and triumphs -- on the mundane and unusual aspects of their careers, families and emotional lives. We hear about Tony the cabdriver's marital problems, Bruce the math teacher's timidity, Simon's estrangement from his children and Neil's battle with mental health issues.

Most fascinating is what the middle-aged subjects have to say about their (voluntary) participation in the films. Suzy, for example, confesses to loathing the experience. Nick, an engineering professor from the Yorkshire Dales now living and teaching in Wisconsin, says they're an “incredibly hard thing to be in.” And to-the-manor-born Tory barrister John ponders the philosophical significance of the Up project thusly: “Fascinating, I'm sure, but does it have any value? That's a different question.” The answer, old chap, is a resounding yes. Distributor: First Run
Director: Michael Apted
Producers: Michael Apted and Claire Lewis
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 135 min.
Release Date: October 6 ltd

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