"56 Up" a Half-Century-Long Story’s Slow New Chapter

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 20, 2013

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A curious and worthy project now sadly at a point of diminishing returns, director Michael Apted’s Up series—which I wager even those who have never seen might still remember as a constant cause of conversation on the old Siskel & Ebert television programs—began life in 1964 as a short documentary for the UK’s Granada TV network called Seven Up! Attempting to prove that Britain’s caste system was still alive and well in the 1960s, director Paul Almond interviewed 20 different seven-year-olds from varying economic backgrounds, ostentatiously citing the old Jesuit saying: “Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man.”

Michael Apted was an assistant on the first picture and since went on to a successful Hollywood career, helming entertainments both decent (Coal Miner’s Daughter) and not so much (The World is Not Enough, last year’s Chasing Mavericks). But every seven years since that early gig, Apted has dropped in for a brief visit with approximately 14 of those original 20 youngsters. The result is a fascinating time capsule, an undertaking obviously unprecedented in modern film, even if I’ve never found the individual movies quite as compelling as their fervent cult following might have you believe.

Almond’s original thesis statement was junked ages ago, and instead we’ve got rather one-of-a-kind, real-time, time-lapse photography, spending a couple of days with ordinary folks every seven years for almost five decades. The obvious appeal here is following your favorite characters—like reality TV done with the seasons spread out 84 months apart, instead of the usual six.

It’s been a unique experience watching these disparate strangers evolve and change over time, and 56 Up is perhaps predictably the mellowest of the movies. It’s somehow fitting in retrospect that 28 Up was the first to cause a real phenomenon—and the first to land a U.S. theatrical release—when these kids were so young and full of piss and vinegar. Now twice that age, they, for the most part, seem to have settled into an autumnal contentment, not quite embracing old age just yet, but the big conflicts have been largely resolved.

Except, of course, in the case of Neil Hughes—the troubled breakout star of this series who spent a far portion of his 20s wandering homeless around Scotland—still bristling with a furtive intelligence that may never quite be at rest. Hughes seems to have finally landed on his feet, working as a local politician and lay minister in a small village, but there’s something cutting about his commentary. He openly admits that he never figured out how to make any money and, while candidly discussing his suicidal moments, makes it pointedly clear that fans of this series will never understand his personal turmoil, no matter how many kind letters they send.

Hughes’ segment is the most affecting, unfortunately frontloaded at the start of the film. Probably because he’s the one “character” everybody remembers from these movies, Apted is uncommonly patient in allowing it to unfold in the present tense. The other 13 aren’t so lucky, and 56 Up is bogged down with a surfeit of footage, constantly cutting from decade to decade, filling us in on eight movies and almost 50 years of often not-particularly interesting backstory—just trying to keep track of all the divorces requires a flowchart—before bringing us up to speed on recent events in sequences lasting barely 10 minutes in length. The result, repeating itself again and again, gives the sense of a movie that’s in an awful hurry, yet still takes forever to get anywhere. (This is probably an unavoidable conceptual flaw. But 14 characters is just way too many for anybody who isn’t Robert Altman.)

Another design problem is that age-wise, 56 just ain’t all that different from 49. The financial crisis looms large in the background of several stories, putting the kibosh on a few early retirement plans. (This series is nothing if not attuned to the hardscrabble nuts and bolts of what it takes to make a living.) But for the most part, these folks are still pretty much where we left them.

Apted is 72 years old, yet vows to continue the series for as many more installments as he can. I hate to sound ghoulish, but 63 Up and 70 Up will probably be a lot more eventful—and not in a good way.

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