Director Michael Apted's Up series is one of the most intriguing projects in the history of documentary film. Initiated in 1963, the series began with a profile of 14 British 7-year-olds from various walks of life. Every seven years since then, Apted—an assistant on the first film—has returned to interview the participants. Some have dropped out of the series. Some have dropped back in. A surprising number have returned every seven years to speak with Apted, on camera and at length, with admirable candor.
In the eighth installment of the series, 56 Up, we catch up once again with some of these familiar faces—older now, heavier maybe, often sadder, usually wiser. Take Neil, the forever-troubled wanderer who has drifted on society's outskirts since dropping out of school. In flashback sequences, we're reminded that Neil was squatting in abandoned houses in 21 Up and entirely homeless at age 28. But now we find him serving as a lay minister and town council member in a small village. He's troubled still, and lonely, but seems to have reached some approximation of peace.
Two kids from the first film are profiled together. Suzy came from a wealthy background, and Nick started out in a one-room country school. Suzy would eventually forgo education to explore Paris, while Nick got a degree in physics from Oxford. At 56, both appear comfortable, and their accents are discernibly more posh than the others.
The details roll by: Simon, raised in a children's home, is now a happy family man and volunteers as a foster parent. Paul works as a handyman at a retirement community. Peter plays in a folk band. Jackie has arthritis.
You don't need to be familiar with the previous films to appreciate 56 Up. Apted deftly weaves in clips from earlier installations, and the effect is that of watching someone age 50 years in 10 minutes. The juxtapositions can be moving: The frantic insecurity of the 14-year-old girl is now a quiet desperation behind the eyes. It's sweet and sad at the same time. Like all good art, 56 Up provokes complicated feelings.
A certain, inevitable self-awareness has crept into the films over the years. The Up series participants are minor celebrities in Britain. The project has impacted their lives enormously, and not always for the better. Several scenes are about the subjects' ambivalence toward the films. "I have a ridiculous loyalty to it," says one series veteran. "Even though I hate it."
When it began, the Up series was intended as an examination of the British class system, and of the Jesuit saying, "Give me a child until he is 7 and I will give you the man." Viewers are invited to reflect on the adage with each particular case study, but the series has grown way past aphorisms. The film draws no conclusions, and perhaps it's the participants themselves who have the ultimate vantage point.
"The idea of looking at a bunch of people over time, and how they evolve—that was a really nifty idea," says Nick. "But it isn't a picture, really, of the essence of Nick or Suzy. It's a picture of everyone. It's how a person, any person, how they change."
I think that's right. The Up movies aren't about the people they're about—not really. They're about aging and change and the passing of time. They're about everybody.
Correction: Nick's education began in a one-room country school, not a private school. See comments below.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Common people."