A stellar exercise in long-game documentary storytelling, Michael Apted’s Up series started with a group of 14 British schoolchildren in 1964, all age seven yet scattered throughout England’s class strata. The notion was to check in on the kids every seven years, and for those who’ve followed their progress through each new chapter or caught up with the collective project in media res, the result has always been a singular concoction: part secondhand family reunion, part car-wreck voyeurism of disintegrating marriages and dashed hopes, and part oblique state-of-the-nation address.
That last element was already on the wane as the participants edged into middle age, and with 56 Up, the sociological aspect has practically become a vestigial tail. The global recession is mentioned by some of the remaining baker’s dozen of Up-ites (only one of the subjects is presently MIA), but what started as an experiment in class-conscious cinematic cartography has officially become about the people themselves, rather than their currency as symbols. You hear about how those with rocky romantic pasts eventually found soulmates, how much the working-class cabbie Tony feels at home in Spain, how the mentally unstable Neil became a priest; even the series dropout Peter has returned, because “I know who I am now.” (Also, he wants to promote his alt-country band.) Unexpected late-in-life pleasures dominate the conversation, and to see these folks we’ve watched grow up dote over grandchildren adds yet another dimension to this ongoing every-person saga. Apted once wanted to give us “glimpses into Britain’s future,” per the archival-footage announcer. With this installment, he’s delivered an intimate portrait of settling down and finally making peace with one’s well-publicized past.
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