Directed by Michael Apted. PG. 144 min. Opens Dec. 21 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
Every seven years, a group of Brits who we first met as schoolkids in the 1964 TV doc Seven Up! have allowed viewers to peer into their lives. Through the course of Michael Apted’s Up documentary series, they’ve grown before our eyes, a process that hasn’t been easy on some of them. Just ask Peter—a teacher who was so vilified in the U.K.’s tabloid press for comments he made about the Thatcher government in 28 Up that he declined to participate in the ensuing films. Though his unexpected return is a highlight of 56 Up, he admits he’s only doing it to promote his country-music trio. Thankfully, his band is good enough to halt any worries that Apted’s original reality-TV prototype is sliding into X Factor territory.
Instead, 56 Up maintains the high standards for thoughtfulness and emotional richness set by its predecessors, which have arrived every seven years over the last half-century. The fact that this instalment captures most of the 13 regulars at a happy time in their lives makes it especially enjoyable. Though the effects of the economic crisis are evident in many of their careers or those of family members, the impact is less dramatic than you might expect, perhaps because the series has charted a more gradual process of decay for Britain’s working class (and much of its middle).
While few may be free of financial worries, nearly all are able to draw on strong relationships with partners and children. That’s true even of the subjects who seemed to have the most cards stacked against them, like Symon and Paul, originally scouted in 1964 while living at the same charity house, or Tony, the London cabbie whose once-rocky marriage seems as healthy as ever. As for Neil—whose struggles with depression have made him a key figure in the series—his modest career as a local politician and church leader has evidently provided him with the structure (and steady pay) that he’s long sought.
Regardless of whether you’ve aged along with the series or are only just discovering it, there’s much to learn from the personal stories collected in 56 Up. Peter’s musical interlude is just one bonus.