Moving and ambitious in scale like nothing else in cinema, Michael Apted’s Up films began in 1964 as a BBC news program exploring an old Jesuit maxim: “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man.” Using interviews of fourteen randomly selected schoolchildren, Seven Up! sought to probe English society as it was right then, “when the shop steward and the executive of 2000 are seven years old.” Class was the not-so-secret subject initially, but with the press of years, something odd happened: life. As Apted returned at seven-year intervals to film these average representatives of British culture, the gut-level impact of the films has derived from how much or how little they’ve changed from the tykes we first knew. Everything becomes secondary to the drama of aging.
We see the harrowing dynamic laid out for us like a timeline, and the effect of 42 years on a little girl’s dimpled visage can be brutal to watch. Each Up film uses footage from the early films, and so the average participant moves in the blink of an eye from being an immaculate schoolkid sprout to being a heap of dead wood, plagued by obesity, alcohol, emotional wear, bad English dentistry, and the thrashing of time. For under-thirty viewers who still think they’re immortal, the latest installment could very well be the grimmest and most haunting of horror films.
Still, Apted’s achievement is one of essential humanity. (His other résumé items, including the second-to-last Pierce Brosnan Bond movie, are footnotes by comparison.) Try to think of another movie project that endeavors to capture in some fashion the entirety of a life’s experience. We get just a taste of these lives, of course, the portion that Apted likes out of what his subjects allow him to see. But it’s always been a given that the twelve interviewees (two of the original fourteen dropped out in their twenties) are actually co-makers of the films, editing their own lives for Apted. (And who can say how much having a film crew track you down every seven years might affect your daily existence?) As it is, 49 Up is a film in a continuum — riveting for its place in the series. By itself, it can sometimes feel like grilling your ordinary neighbors about their history when they’d rather be washing the car.
As they eyeball their half-century, Apted’s subjects are not so forthcoming anymore and feel, more than ever, perfectly free to bridle and bellyache about the seven-year-bitch experience that comes when they’re forced again and again to evaluate their lives for the cameras and the audience. It’s hard to blame them, popular notions of reality-TV fame lust notwithstanding. Jackie — the gregarious East End girl who grew up to be plagued by rheumatoid arthritis — confronts Apted directly about invasive questions going back decades, while Suzy, the camera-shy, upper-class waif who chain-smoked through the 21 episode, admits in peaceful middle age that the films have been “painful,” “not something I’ve enjoyed in any way,” and hopes not to continue.
The Jesuits prove to be mistaken in one aspect — only the wealthy, privileged kids became exactly what they’d intended (judges and lawyers). For everyone else, life was a series of half-assed experiments, and their workaday outcomes are largely the product of luck. (The exception is Nick, the farmer’s son who became a physicist and who still longs for Yorkshire.) In any case, political ideas don’t quite survive the films’ real-time historical reach — life takes over, in all of its banality, private pleasures, employment struggle, and divorce hurt.
Like the average life Apted hoped to peg, the Up series has had an arc — dramatically, 35 Up was its acme, startling in its juxtaposition between childhood innocence and the tolls of a hard midlife that had just begun to throw up challenges. 49 Up feels like a wind-down, the youthful cataclysms and crises long in the past. Only Neil, the cherubic would-be bus driver who spiraled into mental instability and homelessness in his twenties, still makes for an addictive and eloquent camera object — he’d be the series’ star even without his troubled path. Nowadays, he’s still alone but rooted and housed, a local Liberal Democrat functionary in the north, dedicated to the public good. No one could’ve foreseen in 1964 that the only universal among the Up kids would be hard-earned happy endings.