This is the seventh installment in what’s surely one of the most remarkable film projects of our–indeed, any–time, Michael Apted’s continuing series of documentaries that record the changes in the lives and attitudes of a cross-section of English children over the years. It began with a 1964 television program that introduced the fourteen subjects at age seven, since which time Apted and his crew have returned every seven years to interview them (or at least those who haven’t opted out of the series along the way) anew. The result is an incredible portrait of individuals growing and changing over time, a reality show that transcends that now-hackneyed phrase to become an utterly unique work of “popular history”–and of art.
“49 Up” finds its subjects deep into middle age, some still single, some divorced, others married for the first or second time, and most all relatively comfortable. There are moments of exasperation with the filmmaker (a couple of the subjects complain about being intruded on every seven years, or being misrepresented, or having to put up with the notoriety the program has brought them). But for the most part they’ve turned into a more contemplative, satisfied lot than they’ve been in some previous episodes, though there are more than a few hints of regret and uncertainty about the future. As usual, the picture almost builds to its visit with Neil, who’s certainly had the most painful, troubled itinerary of the subjects; one always worries that Apted might have found him again in a depressed and tortured state, as he’s sometimes been in the past. This review won’t reveal his current circumstances, nor those of any of the other subjects, because this is one instance in which spoilers are especially odious; it’s rediscovering these old acquaintances after seven years and learning how they’ve changed that provide such great pleasure on first viewing. Repeated viewings, however, deepen the emotional impact.
“49 Up” stands on its own as a fascinating film, but its effect is unquestionably enhanced by viewing it in the context of the entire series, watched chronologically. Happily all the programs are available on DVD. So if the project is new to you, get started. And if you’re already addicted, you’ll know that this installment, like all its predecessors, is self-recommending.