Gray at the Edges

42 Up

It is a mark of the skill behind director Michael Apted's series of Up documentaries that these movies excite my interest to find out about the fates of his subjects, whom I have never met, as much as the alumni register of my alma mater does, which updates me about the lives of my former classmates who aren't too embarrassed to report every five years what they've been up to. The effect, in both cases, is that of a cosmically slow soap opera, filled with unexpected twists and turns.

The story begins in 1964, when the 23-year-old Apted interviewed 14 British 7-year-olds for the Granada-TV documentary Seven Up. Follow-up interviews were conducted with the same group at seven-year intervals (ages 14, 21, 28, and 35). Another seven years have passed, and Apted is back with 42 Up, checking in with the now middle-aged children. Three of the original 14 declined to be interviewed this time around; we get brief updates on two of them and nothing on the third. Intercutting the new footage with clips from the previous five outings, Apted gives us the rare thrill (or horror, depending on your perspective) of seeing people change, both physically and otherwise, from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood.

In one way, this could be called A Very Special "Up": The film opens with a reprise of the opening of the original. Over the old black-and-white logo of the World in Action series, we hear a narrator explain the point of the show: "These children are our future. By speaking to them, we get a glimpse of England in the year 2000."

Spontaneity and Energy: Tony at 7.
Spontaneity and Energy: Tony at 7.

Well, the year 2000 is upon us. So while one hopes the series will continue indefinitely, this latest installment is in some ways the payoff of that decades-old promise: Now we get to see how accurately that glimpse suggested the reality of the year 2000. Of course, most viewers back in 1964 could have no more likely predicted where some of these kids could end up than they could have predicted the fate of the Beatles, the birth of the counterculture, the rise of Thatcherism, or the omnipresence of the Internet.

Apted presents the updated story of each "kid" in roughly 10 to 12 minutes. With one notable exception -- about whom more later -- their lives have been interesting but unremarkable. Marriages, divorces, the death of parents, the birth of children, the beginnings of their own health problems; for some, a straightforward career, for others, a series of less stable jobs. Race and class, which were crucial focal points in 1964, seem like less ubiquitous issues now, though it must also be noted that those who were born working-class seem to have stayed working-class, and those who arrived with privilege have mostly kept it. (Curiously, at least two of the three abstainees this time around are from the most privileged backgrounds.) There is some class movement: A farmer's son from a small village is now a physics professor at the University of Wisconsin. One obvious development is the growth in mobility and decline in familial stability, compared to their parents' generation.

What is most striking is the sense of mature acceptance -- or burnt-out resignation, if you want to take the negative view -- that most of the subjects display. With two or three exceptions, they have all suffered losses and disappointments; yet nearly all take it in stride and manage to feel thankful for whatever successes they've had as well. Almost as striking is the generally beneficial effect of aging: While few can muster the spontaneity and energy that made them so charming at 7, none has grown into the worst conceivable version of himself. Even the snottiest of the upper-class twits have developed into better people than one could have hoped for, given their childhood personalities.

All of which brings us to the one extraordinary exception to much of the above. Ever since 21 Up, a boy named Neil has been, for all practical purposes, the star of the series. It's not a welcome distinction, one imagines: He is the most fascinating because he's had the worst life. In the first three installments, he went from a happy, clever little Liverpudlian to an unemployed, chronically depressed squatter. By the fourth film, he was homeless and without hope; and in 35 Up, he was a barely functioning hermit, living off the dole in the remote Shetland Islands.

Those who have followed the series inevitably are most curious and concerned about Neil. And Apted knows it: Once again, he saves Neil for last. And we won't spoil the surprises, other than to say that, while he still has problems, this time there's been a marked upturn in his fortunes. Apted pulls a clever (but fair) trick on us by withholding certain information until nearly the end. For the first time ever, one chortles with joy while catching up on Neil's life.

42 Up isn't the only film Apted has in the marketplace right now. He also directed the new James Bond adventure, which had a budget many times larger than all six Up films put together. Yet there is no doubt that when his career is assessed in the next millennium, it's this modest but gripping series of documentaries that will be acknowledged as his greatest work.

 
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