56 Up (First Run Features, NR)

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film 56-up_smThe concept behind the series is based on a quotation attributed to Francis Xavier: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”

 

 

film 56-up

If ever a documentary series were a natural for binge viewing, it’s Michael Apted’s Up series. Beginning in 1964 with Seven Up!, the series has followed a group of 14 British citizens, starting when they were seven years old and coming back to them every seven years; as the title of the newest film suggests, they are now 56. Together, these films make up the reality series ever captured on film, and demonstrate that the most ordinary events of life can be fascinating if they’re presented effectively.

Interestingly, Seven Up!, made for Granada Television, was originally meant to be a one-off. Instead, Michael Apted, a researcher for Seven Up! (directed by Paul Almond), suggested returning to the same subjects every seven years, and has directed each subsequent film. His directorial presence gives the series a strong sense of continuity, but it also means that the only window we have into the lives of the children featured in the series is through his directorial perspective.

Fourteen children were featured in the first film, and although some dropped out for one or more of the follow-up films, 13 of the original 14 are back for 56 Up. The concept behind the original program is based on a quotation attributed to Francis Xavier—“Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man”—and the children were selected to represent different social classes and regions within Britain.

Perhaps inevitably, the selection of the original subjects also reflects the prejudices of the time. Only four girls were included, and three of them were recruited from the same primary school. In addition, all but one of the participants are white, with the single non-white member drawn from the same children’s home as one of the white children. This selection process suggests that the filmmakers felt that really the important and interesting stories would be those of white boys, with the stories of women and non-white individuals included only as an afterthought (a prejudice that has not entirely disappeared from our popular media today—but that’s an issue to take up some other time).

Most of what has happened to the Seven Up! kids over the years is pretty much what happens to most people—they work, they marry, they have kids and then grandkids—and it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that their class background exerted a strong influence on their adult lives. At age seven, prep-schooler Andrew Brackfield detailed his plans to attend Trinity College at Cambridge University, while Paul Kligerman, living in a children’s home, wasn’t sure what a university was. Today, Brackfield is a prosperous lawyer, while Kligerman is a handyman for a retirement village—not a bad life, but also not one carrying the kind of privileges that money and connections can bring.

Having said that, most of the participants have settled into a life that is acceptable to them, or at least that’s how Apted chooses to present them. Several have achieved much more than you might have predicted from their seven-year-old selves: For instance, one of the working-class girls, Sue Davis, did not attend university herself, but now enjoys a successful career as a university administrator. Even Neil Hughes, whose adult life has been plagued by mental illness and marked by periods of homelessness, has settled into a useful life, working as a lay leader for his church and serving as a town councilman.

There are no big revelations in 56 Up, no huge bombshells dropped. Instead, it’s a quiet film projecting a mood somewhere between “I’m OK, You’re OK” and “There’s no place like home,” the latter because many participants emphasize that their greatest joys have come from their families. 56 Up feels like a retrospective and summation of the whole series, with ample quotation from the previous films, an approach that makes it interesting even for viewers who haven’t seen the previous installments. | Sarah Boslaugh

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