Producer: Claire Lewis Director: Michael Apted Distributor: BritBox
Effectively capturing the passage of time is something filmmakers have always struggled with. The problem isn’t unique to cinema, of course: novelists have the same challenge. But the difficulty of addressing it is multiplied when the medium is a visual one, and some have gone to extraordinary means to overcome it. The most obvious example is Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” which he filmed over the course of twelve years to allow us to see the development of a child to the cusp of adulthood.
Linklater’s film is, of course, a work of fiction concentrating on a single youngster. More expansive in scope is the remarkable “Up” series of documentaries that Britain’s Granada Television has been making since 1964. The first, “Seven Up!,” directed by Paul Almond, profiled a group of fourteen seven-year olds from different backgrounds; subsequent installments, made every seven years by Michael Apted, followed them to test the truth of the Jesuit adage, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”—the issue of determinism—while suggesting the effects of the traditional class system in action.
The result is one of the most remarkable cinematic achievements in the history of documentary filmmaking. This ninth installment might well be the last (Apted is now 78, and the participants have built such a close working relationship with him that it’s doubtful they would continue with a replacement), and so it’s appropriate that it should have a valedictory tone—one of the subjects has died, and another is seriously ill. (One of the fourteen has declined to be involved since “21 Up,” and is here joined by another; others have chosen to be absent from a few earlier segments, but are now back.)
In fact, there’s an air of twilight resignation that pervades the film, not simply in the recollections about the deceased participant but in the ill one’s thoughts about mortality and those being left behind. But there are episodes that are wonderfully uplifting. Paul and Symon, for example, who were introduced living in a children’s home and have remained friends over the years; they not only revisit the home together and share memories but go on a joint vacation with their wives.
And no one who has followed the series will be able to resist another meeting with Neil, the Liverpool lad with a ready laugh and big ambitions whose life took turn after unexpected turn, leaving us wondering in each installment whether he would survive to the next. His psychological stability remains in doubt here, but despite problems in his personal life he has soldiered on and achieved a modicum of acceptance of his condition, and even found ways of serving the community.
Over the years Apted has developed a style and rhythm for the series—the theatrically-released films are actually shortened versions of the television documentaries—that continues to be followed here. The bulk of the footage consists of interviews, which are probing without being rude or insensitive. These one-on-one sessions rarely turn into joint ones (the Paul and Symon segment is an obvious exception) but are accompanied by flashbacks to previous years as Apted notes the changes in the subjects’ conditions without being judgmental about them. As befits the age of the principals, this installment feels more leisurely and autumnal than earlier ones, but that certainly doesn’t make it any less affecting.
As a whole the “Up” series is truly an extraordinary cinematic accomplishment, and if this film does turn out to be its culmination, it’s a fitting capstone. It can be savored on its own—Apted makes sure to tell us about each subject’s past before moving into the present—but it’s a fair certainty that if it’s your first encounter with this fascinating group, you’ll be hooked, and will want to go back to the beginning and follow their individual trajectories over time. Doing so will take less time than watching the entire run of Marvel Universe movies, and it will be far better spent.