Doughier faces, but decent lives
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, February 15, 2013
Before there was Honey Boo Boo, before the Kardashians and Real Housewives and Bachelors, there was “Seven Up!,” Paul Almond’s groundbreaking 1964 film in which 14 British 7-year-olds discussed their lives, hopes and dreams for the future. In 1971, Almond and Michael Apted, who’d been a researcher for the original show, had the brilliant idea to catch up with them to see how reality lined up, a ritual the filmmakers have continued every seven years since.
The original documentary -- made for British television -- was intended to illustrate how the country’s deeply ingrained class system inscribed itself on the aspirations and inner lives of its young people. But the successive movies -- the latest is “56 Up,” opening Friday -- have been far less polemical. Instead, the core participants (only one has dropped out) have allowed viewers to drop in on their lives as they grapple with the cardinal concerns of their generation. Finding love, making money and having kids have now given way to sustaining marriages, welcoming grandchildren, losing parents and facing redundancy and retirement. (One interesting artifact of the series’ original intent is how Thatcherism conditioned so many of the lives of the “56 Up” participants, who were young adults when the country’s most draconian budget cuts took hold.)
Viewers expecting a depressing tableau are in for a surprise, though: “56 Up” is modestly upbeat, its subjects candid about their regrets -- and their often hostile feelings about the “Up” series itself -- but also satisfied with their various lots in life, even if the difference between resignation and contentment isn’t always clear.
Many of Almond and Apted’s protagonists are now on strong second marriages, their adult children mostly successfully launched. (One exception is Bruce, the baby-faced late bloomer whose kids are still young; watching them snuggle into a tent during a camping trip is one of the film’s rare funny moments.) Even the vaguely embittered Neil -- perhaps the series’ most troubled character, who spent his young adulthood homeless or squatting -- seems to have found his perch as a small-town politician and lay minister.
There are times when “56 Up” feels like the cinematic version of a sprawling family reunion, with the attendant confusion and occasional torpor. (Newbies to the “Up” series needn’t worry about getting lost: The filmmakers smoothly interweave material from past interviews to bring the audience up to speed.) With their paunches, disappearing hair and resigned temperaments, “56 Up’s” subjects often succumb to cliches about glasses being half full and life being too short.
But as anyone who has reached mid life knows that, at a certain point, those sentiments take on fresh, even urgent meaning. The anxieties about money, health, children, work and death that animate much of “56 Up” are banal but profoundly universal, as are the palpable feelings of joy and pride at putting together meaningful and productive lives.
This is the stuff of reality television and Russian novels -- and, every seven years, at least, of a compelling and moving film.
Contains nothing objectionable.