Michael Apted’s latest documentary in the celebrated Up Series, 56 Up rejoins thirteen of the original fourteen participants for new insights and reflections on the changes and challenges of growing up. As the maturing subjects of this installment summarize what’s happened over the past seven years, there is a new and compelling impression that, ultimately, there’s a conclusion approaching. This gives 56 Up a newfound gravity, infusing each subject, and the film as a whole, with solemnity.
The Up Series, which began in 1964, chronicles the lives of fourteen English children from diverse cultural and class backgrounds. This examination — based on the Jesuit maxim, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man” — attempts to characterize each child and their future prospects by the limitations or privileges of the social station they’re born into. What is important to acknowledge, though, is that the series never becomes prescriptive. The subsequent installments revealed some of the nuances and mutability of these predestined tracks, and, most importantly, the current installment highlights how global forces — such as the recent recession and financial instability — have become more influential in dictating the quality and outcomes of participants’ lives.
What continues to be both pleasurable and painful to watch is how each subject is held accountable to the ambitions and opinions of their younger selves. This phenomenon may have even more important implications for those growing up and coming of age today, who have lives that are so well-documented and carefully curated that their identity and attitudes could preside over their future selves indefinitely. Though there may not still be exactly the same racist, elitist, sweet, or precocious answers captured and immortalized by Apted, there may still be the similar regrettable ephemera of life that taunt and haunt each individual in this documentary. But while many of the subjects acknowledge some of the indignities of their continued participation in the series, in the era of reality television and the multitude of channels through which privacy is lost or sacrificed, these periodic moments of self-evaluation and personal inventory no longer feel as scandalous or invasive as in previous installments.
What’s also notable in the latest incarnation of the series is the switch to digital, although this difference in medium doesn’t change the cadence or the formula developed over decades of production. What may have initially been a decision based on practical limitations has developed into the structure of give-and-take exchanges that define and pace the film. Familiar scenarios and interview arrangements provide structure for intercutting from the previous installments’ scenes to current interviews. Each participant grows up before our eyes and ultimately in front of Apted’s camera, and the stylistic choices that allow them to do so also create the metric by which the audience views and appraises each subject’s evolution.
56 Up marks the first time that the series feels universally weighty. This may be due to the advancing age of the subjects. It may also be that the participants are more affected not only by death, illness, divorce, but also prosperity, contentedness, and professional fulfillment. Some have become parents and grandparents, now filmed watching their children grow up and make decisions with similar trajectories and similar awareness of what each choice could imply. Looking back and seeing the first black and white clips from when each subject was seven feels more nostalgic and sentimental now than in previous installments. All of those children beamed with possibility, even those allegedly slated to flounder. There was little reluctance despite the inscrutable futures ahead of each child. Now, at 56, those futures have mostly happened. And Apted himself is now in his 70s. But with any luck, there will be seven more years yet to come.