Runtime: 2 hr 17 min
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Michael Apted
Starring: Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett, Symon Basterfield, Andrew Brackfield, John Brisby, Suzanne Dewey, Charles Furneaux, Nicholas Hitchon
Michael Apted's UP documentary series is easily the best ever made.
Review by: SteveRhodes
Added: 8 years ago
Michael Apted's UP documentary series is easily the best ever made. The latest one -- 49 UP -- is an emotionally rewarding experience that is akin to vicariously living a dozen lives in just over two short hours.
The idea behind the series was to follow a collection of British youth and track their progress every seven years, comparing and contrasting how they view their life's plans as their journey through time marches on. As the opening to the first film, 7 UP, put it in 1964, with "Britain at the crossroads," they wanted to get "a glimpse of the world in the year 2000."
Although the filmmakers chose what they felt was a cross section of society at the time, Britain is much different today, which many of the ex-East Enders in the movie comment on. Their old homes have been taken over by different nationalities, and the area has become much more dangerous. The people don't resent it, so much as accept it. They have moved on, now living all over the globe.
Every film in the series has the same format. Each of the 12 people -- there were originally 14, but 2 have dropped out -- is considered in depth, with sound bites from their lives at 7, 14, 21, etc. The editing isn't strictly chronological, but Apted is a very lucid documentarian with each jump in time carefully labeled, so that you never get lost. And, perhaps even more importantly, the design is such that you can enjoy 49 UP even if you've never seen any of the others in the series. I started with 28 UP and look forward with great anticipation to each new installment. The films have very limited theatrical runs before they are off quickly to DVD, where they work just as well as they do on the big screen.
The class society of the country is obvious, not so much in the restrictions as in the mind frames. Kids of wealthy parents just assume they will go on to a prestigious university followed by a lucrative and high profile position. And darn if they aren't dead-on accurate, predicting at age 7 the entire path of their lives from the colleges they will attend to the professions they will adopt.
The working class kids are just as predictable. But their ambitions are modest, as are their results.
There are also the striking similarities between the groups with marriage, kids and divorce cycle being common for some, while others view marriage as a real lifelong commitment that they fulfill. Religion and faith are almost completely absent, as is much interest in politics. The main exception to both of these rules is Neil, a guy who lived as a homeless person and appeared at the end of 28 UP to be the person most likely to commit suicide before the next edition. He ends up being a deeply troubled person who is a Liberal Democratic council member with a strong religious conviction. He is also the only one who stayed single, which he admits is no surprise given his strange behaviors. A nervous but dedicated man, he lives mainly on the dole, which he augments with his modest council salary.
Everyone is so fascinating that one could easily devote the whole review to any one of them.
Tony, who wanted to be a jockey, works, as does his wife, as a London cabby. They've had a sometimes tumultuous marriage, but they are still together and in the process of moving their extended family to their new home in Spain. Tony says he is "as happy as can be now" and means it. Few people in the series ever try to put on a happy face for the camera. They just tell it like it is, as Tony did in a previous edition, when he admitted to marital infidelity and the strain it had caused to his marriage.
Jackie, another ex-East Ender like Tony, is the only one to criticize Apted. She resents the way he exposes her life and her family's life to the world, showing the good and the bad of it. When he asks what she thinks he should show, she tells him he should focus only on her hopes and dreams. Her dream, as she explains it, would be to completely redo all of her education so that she felt better able to converse with people and to understand things.
Bruce is a bright mathematician who studied at Oxford and then spent most of his life as a single man teaching in poor schools in Bangladesh and in Britain. By 49, however, he has gotten himself worn out by his old life and is now married with kids and teaching at St. Albans, where he can finally use his advanced math skills again. He and his wife are glad to be away from the East End, since where they live now feels so much safer.
Paul, who along with Simon, grew up in the same orphanage, moved long ago to Australia. He has been married most of his life, but he has problems of self-esteem, mainly corrected now. His recurring concern is why his wife would live with someone as "worthless" as he is.
The winner of the award for most changed would probably be Suzy. At 21, she says they she is "very, very cynical" about marriage and children. A chain-smoker, she is rebellion personified. But at 28 and forever thereafter, she starts living a picture postcard life. She, her husband, her kids and her house all look and act like something ripped from a page of Architectural Digest as painted by Norman Rockwell. They are all so beautiful that it is astounding. She says that she finds making these movies "very difficult and very painful" and doesn't intend to participate in any more after this one. If she is in any pain whatsoever, I was never able to detect it. We should all be so lucky as to live a life like hers.
Being a bit of a nerd myself, I've always been drawn to Nick, who went to Oxford to study physics before he left for Wisconsin, where he has lived the rest of his life as a professor. Likeable and accessible as an adult, he, nonetheless, had his wife leave him since 42 UP. He is now again happily married. My favorite story of his is the joke he told, "How do you tell an engineer is an extrovert? If he is looking at 'your' shoes." As a lad, Nick wasn't an extrovert. He is frequently seen talking to us, when young, while observing his own shoes. I also like the quote he attributes to his aging father with failing health, who remarks that "old age isn't for sissies."
Some of the most well off of the lot, such as John, now a QC (that's "Queen's Council" for those of you who don't get your daily dose of British TV), give back to the people with charity work. He works hard for medical relief in Bulgaria, where his family originally came from. "Who wants to be the richest corpse in the graveyard?" he comments.
The film ends with Neil's story. My favorite quote of his is about the futility of voting: "It doesn't matter who you vote for, the government always gets in."
49 UP ends with the original ending footage of 7 UP, which concludes with, "Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man. This has been a glimpse of Britain's future."
49 UP runs a mesmerizingly fast 2:17. It is not rated but would be PG for thematic material and would be acceptable for all ages.