“Give me the child until he is seven,” goes the Jesuit maxim that opens Paul Almond’s Seven Up, “and I will give you the man.” That film, the first in a series that now covers half a century and counting, proposed that Britain had a class system so rigid and so inflexible that the trajectory of each of its citizens was fixed from childhood. Almond, along with assistant director Michael Apted, quizzed 14 children about their diverse economic backgrounds, their friendships, their crushes, and their hopes for the future. The filmmakers planned to come back in seven years to confirm or deny their hypothesis: that the fate of Britain’s children, if beyond the scope of a camera, was also out of the kids’ own hands.
As it turns out, nobody involved had their future set in stone: not the kids, and certainly not the series or its makers. Apted came back alone to film the group at 14. He’s returned every seven years since, putting his now full-grown subjects through interviews that stand somewhere between friendly catch-ups and chilly interrogations. By 21 Up, what had started as an attempt to paint a nation’s portrait in 14 different shades had split into a set of individual profiles; by 28 Up, those 14 portraits had merged into a single one—modern life in all its unpredictability, imperfection, and richness. The participants themselves went from being treated as bits of data to full-fledged individuals and, finally, everymen with lives at once typical and exceptional.
56 Up finds 13 of Apted’s original participants—Bruce, Nick, Lynn, Sue, Jackie, Symon, Suzy, John, Andrew, Peter, Tony, and Neil—straddling the gap between middle and old age, chugging through careers alternately stymied and successful, coming to terms with grandparenthood, financial strain, divorce, and remarriage. The passing of time is brought up in question after question, but it’s also evident in every face on screen, in grey hair, wrinkles, bags under the eyes. It’s evident too in the relationship between interviewer and subject, which over the years has grown, if not friendlier, more candid, open, and familiar. “I’m lucky, Michael,” Tony, the jockey turned independent man of means, tells the camera, his eyes shining.
Like its predecessors, 56 Up has the audacity to present itself as a film about life—not any particular aspect of life, but the whole shebang, irreducible and complete. Perhaps expectedly, and again like the other Up films, the latest installment winds up straining against the limitations of the format. It’s hard to tell just how much access into these people’s lives we have gained on the basis of Apted’s brief interviews—no matter how much these men and women reveal about themselves, there will always remain something that can’t be glimpsed or addressed from the interviewer’s chair. That’s true, of course, of all documentaries, even ones that reveal far less about their subjects than this one. If we’re especially aware of our own incomprehension here, perhaps it’s because we’ve been shown enough of life to realize just how much still lies unseen.
At 21, conservative apologist John, a barrister, scolded Apted for showing him and his public-school classmates handily predicting their educational futures at age seven, but skipping over “the sleepless nights, the poring over books, all the sweat and toil that brought us to university.” He meant it as a defense of economic privilege, but it serves just as well as a challenge to the methodology of the series. The subjects reflect on their marriages, careers, and fear of child rearing, yet we never witness the blossoming of affection into love, the thrill of a big promotion, the frenzy, elation, and terror of childbirth. It’s all glimpsed as if through a rearview mirror or a crystal ball, described on camera in lengthy, generally fluid speech. For all their interest in what it means to be alive, the Up films rarely try to approximate what it is like to be alive.
In fact, the most restrictive constraints on display might not be class-related but aesthetic: the narrow boundaries of Apted’s static close-ups. Washed out, blunt, beautiful in an inelegant sort of way, the actual shots that compose each Up film tend to treat the present moment primarily as a platform for retrospection and introspection. It’s in the editing that the films come alive. Apted has a sensitive eye for the expressive potential of the human face, and cannily cuts between subjects at various stages of life: faces young and old, playful and downcast, restless and wise. Taken as a whole, the series functions like one big time-lapse shot: moments individually uninhabitable but set in animated motion when strung together in just the right order.
To be fair, the Up films were never meant to be treated as one continuous work viewed in a single sitting. They would go down easier spaced generously apart, giving audiences what they continue to give their subjects: a couple hours of reflection every seven years. Considered altogether, though, the series starts to come apart at the seams. Perhaps whatever we mean when we talk about the meaning of life can’t be parsed out in time-lapse; perhaps it isn’t come upon by distanced reflection, but by the indescribable day-to-day experience of living. The Up films suggest that wealthy Oxford grads and working-class East Enders have an equal share in that experience, that their lives beg for scrutiny, investigation, even wonder—but not necessarily vicarious participation.
Listen for long enough to the clinical, detached voice of the interviewer, live for long enough within the tight confines of those unembellished talking-head shots, and you might start to feel as if you’re stuck just outside the moment, in a world of hindsight reflections and candid self-assessments. The object of all those reflections lies just outside the frame—life itself, suggested, glimpsed, dissected, but ultimately unknown.