Directed by Michael Apted
Revisiting its subjects every seven years, Michael Apted’s Up series has long been established as a landmark in documentary film, as well as a stark demonstration of cinema’s powers of narrative compression. Their biggest puzzle is perhaps not the predictable vagaries of life they depict, nor why these men and women keep participating in holding themselves up for inspection, but rather how the films overcome their built-in sense of insufficiency, of dissatisfaction: namely, what can it possibly mean to summarize a life?
At this point I hand the critical reins to Nick the jolly physics teacher, who neatly encapsulates Apted’s notion of character: this is “not a picture of me, but it’s a picture of somebody.” In broad yet deft strokes, 56 Up views the aftermath of the traumas and mid-life crises of middle age, as it is endured or (surprisingly, to the moaners among us) enjoyed by Sue, Neil, Peter, Nick, Symon, Lynn, et al., and increasingly their offspring. Unceremoniously paging through the dramas and non-dramas of lifetimes piling up, Apted presents families growing, ambitions lived or denied, and the activities—doing “daft stuff” (Nick again, our meta-critic)—that serves as B-roll between interviews on couches. He asks questions, in a mellifulous offscreen voice of God-as-therapist, at once fair-minded and empathetic; though he is willing to press a point.
Would all this be half as interesting if the men and women were not moving through a parallel Anglo-Saxon universe, their accounts colorfully shot through with bluff candidness, wit, or reserve? From a political standpoint, Apted’s original goals of demonstrating class difference seem long accomplished, with Neil being one surrogate for a certain state of affairs: hyperaware of the situation, and bitterly powerless to effect real change. One feels somewhat the same as these lives efficiently roll out before us, and this installment embraces home truths and lets things ride until the Big Finish yet to come.
Opens January 4