October 09, 2006

MOVIES: 49 Up (Michael Apted, 2005 / US 2006)

In 1963, Michael Apted was a researcher on a BBC film that explored the layers of class in British society by interviewing fourteen 7-year-old children from various schools in London. Every seven years since, Apted has returned to interview the same people, following them through their life. Most of the group have continued to take part in the series; some have missed an occasional installment, but only two of the original fourteen appear to have dropped out for good.

49 Up is the latest installment, and as always, it's fascinating to check in and see what's happened over the last seven years. In general, they've settled into contentment at middle age.

More than I remember from previous installments, the Up series itself is a recurring theme; Apted asks many of the group what it's been like for them to be a part of this project. They all agree that it's been a tremendously difficult thing; it's an intrusion that forces them to dredge up their pasts and examine their lives in ways they'd just as soon not be bothered with. I kept waiting for Apted to ask the obvious follow-up question -- "Then why do you continue to take part?" -- but if he did, we don't get to see it.

Charles points out that the series is a precursor to reality television; "with the added bonus," he says, "that you get to watch us get old, lose our hair, get fat..." Jackie scolds Apted for the way he's portrayed her in earlier films, and claims that the films "aren't about us, they're about your perception of us."

For the last few installments, the most intriguing character of the bunch has been Neil. At 7, he was a bright-eyed, cheerful boy; by 21, he was struggling to find his place in the world; at 35, he was homeless, wandering through the English countryside. When we last saw him at 42, he appeared to have settled down and found himself; at 49, though, it seems that he's simply moved to a slightly higher level of unsettled wandering.

Apted does a superb job of editing each person's segment of the film, using footage from earlier installments of the series to tell their backstory and point up the ways in which people have (or haven't) changed. The Up series is a tremendously important social document, and 49 Up is just as entertaining as the previous installments have been.

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