The Stage and Cinema
2010 Independent and Foreign Film
Review Writing Contest
First place winner Caitlin Graham
Film: 49 Up
Director: Michael Apted
“Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” This Jesuit proverb spawned a 42 year-old labor of love known as
The UP Series, a set of films that first introduces us to 14 young Brits and then revisits them every seven years. Beginning in 1963
with Paul Almond’s Seven Up, which seems more like an ethnographic study of children in their natural environment, the series has followed
these kids of varying socioeconomic backgrounds through puberty, marriage, children, divorce, financial slumps (in one case, homelessness),
illness, and, in the latest film, grandparenthood.
Perhaps the first film plays like a National Geographic special because at seven, its subjects are not yet complete human beings. Like
all children of that age, their feelings, experiences, and world views seem, for the most part, uninformed and base. In a way, though, this
is what makes it appropriate and interesting to begin the series at age 7; the kids are old enough to articulate themselves but don’t have much
of substance to articulate. We are expected to laugh when one of the rich Kensington boys declares, “I read The Financial Times,”
and we do. Still, the voiceover narration of the kids at the zoo and at play in the park is what mostly gives Seven Up its
not-for-entertainment, scientific air.
Over the years, Michael Apted, who took over for Almond after the first installment, has moved away from the Discovery Channel-esque style of
the first film, relating to the subjects as human beings rather than Natives in Kid Land. With each succeeding chapter, he has created a
layering effect: each person’s section begins with footage of them from the first film, then moves briskly through each follow-up until we reach
who they are today. With each new issue raised, the cycle begins again, demonstrating how each subject’s feelings about what Apted sees as
the fundamentals in life – love, family, money, career – have changed over the years (if at all).
In 49 Up, the 13 subjects who have decided to participate again are now half a century old and more at peace with themselves than
ever. They also seem more at ease with Apted, or “Mike,” as they affectionately refer to him. His intermittent, simple questions
barely heard from off-camera, such as the oft-repeated “…And how has that affected you?,” are met with calm familiarity. At 21, John
criticizes Apted for how he has portrayed him in previous films, while Jackie jumps down the director’s throat for the way he words a
question. At 49, John agrees to participate again for the first time in fourteen years, while Jackie concedes, “This may be the first one
that’s about us rather than your perception of us.”
I find that this is true not only of 49, but of all the Up films under Apted’s guidance. It seems the only weapon of manipulation
the filmmaker uses is that of juxtaposition. By showing us Tony at 14, an aspiring jockey, and then Tony at 49, a reserved grandfather,
Apted does not impose an opinion – he merely invites us to compare the two images and react to them, if we wish to do so. His presentation
of his subjects is so unadulterated that it is surprising how complex a reaction it stirs. The series moves us to not only think about life
and ourselves as forever in transition, but to consider issues of gender, race, and class, and how they are also forever in transition.
These films chronicle not just these people but also these years, each chapter acting as a time capsule for its release date. To achieve
the proper effect, the series should be watched in order, one every seven years.
In a sense, The UP Series is an exercise in what the film medium was invented for and what it is capable of: recording human
life. As in life, there are no definite trajectories or answers in these films. There is no real sense of suspense, as there might be
watching Before Sunset nine years after Before Sunrise. We approach 49 Up the way we might approach a 30-year high
school reunion: in quiet anticipation of who’s divorced and who’s died (fortunately, no one yet). It is merely the next stage in an epic
film that has not yet been completed. And it is heartbreaking to realize that we are more likely to see the end of the director’s life
before we see the conclusion.