49 Up Review
If there was one film which best represents Britain through the past fifty years, it is a film in several parts which, when brought together, stands as the greatest documentary achievement I’ve ever seen. I refer, of course, to Michael Apted’s Up series which began in 1964 and has continued every seven years. Back in the first half of the Sixties, a group of seven year olds were assembled by Granada TV, the intention being to make a documentary about class and how it affected young children. But the original documentary was so successful that Michael Apted, then a junior filmmaker on World In Action, decided to follow the children as they grew, catching up with them every seven years until either the project was cancelled, the participants refused to take part or, if it went on long enough, they died.
Forty-two years later, the project has flourished and we’re now presented with 49 Up which sees the participants on the verge of their half-century and in noticeably more buoyant mood than they were back in 1999. 42 Up was rather depressing in some respects with the onset of middle age leading to doubts about relationships and a certain negativity about the ambitions which might never be fulfilled. 49 Up is a lot more optimistic and full of hopes for the future which we haven’t seen since the subjects were 28. It’s impossible not to get dragged in on some level and if you’ve been following the films for a number of years then the experience of watching is a bit like picking up a hugely satisfying epic novel.
Though all the subjects are interesting, there are certainly people in the film who engage one’s sympathies more than others. But this is very fluid and since I first started watching (with 21 Up) my sympathies have kept shifting. Prejudices have a lot to do with it naturally. Bruce always seemed a very likeable chap when he was teaching in Bangladesh or a tough East End comprehensive school but he’s become rather less appealing now that he’s ensconced in a public school and seems to have become some kind of country squire. Tony, on the other hand, always seemed a bit irksome when he appeared to be a cockney wide-boy but when you see him with his grandchildren and hear about his dreams of an idyllic life in Spain it’s easier to warm to him. But the people who you liked immediately on first acquaintance tend to be the ones you want to know about – Paul with his frank acknowledgement of shyness and a sense of inadequacy; Jackie, tough as nails with an infectious laugh; farmer’s son Nick who has become an incredibly high-flying Engineering professor.
Like, I imagine, most people, the story which most engages me is that of Neil; a lost soul who I seriously thought wouldn’t be around to see 42, let alone 49. So it’s a wonderful, punch-the-air moment to discover that he’s not only still around but remarkably happy. Neil engages me because I see some of myself in him – his rootlessness, his restless sense of there being something missing that he can’t put his finger on – but also because he shows the most development between each instalment. At one moment, he’s working as a labourer and living in a squat, the next he’s homeless, the next a local councillor in London. Every time we see him still around, fighting his way through a life which is obviously very difficult, it seems to celebrate something very special - the courage needed to live everyday life.
As ever, Apted’s direction is a model of tact, drawing out the characters of the people and letting them reveal themselves without doing too much prompting. He does take a larger part here than in some of the earlier films simply because the subjects now know him well enough to challenge him. There’s a riveting moment early on when Jackie accuses him of trying to manipulate her responses and turn her into something she isn’t through the way she is edited. There’s some justification in this. Apted’s use of each person as a narrative framework means that their stories are inevitably constructed in a filmic manner and I guess that he selects the things which will be most interesting to the audience who have followed the people over forty years. But this is a small price to pay for Apted’s insight and his overwhelming sympathy for the little lives which would normally pass unnoticed. The attitude of the participants is understandable though. How many of us have to watch ourselves ageing on film with our lives subject to the scrutiny of millions of people? The impact it has on an individual must be immense and, as Suzy indicates, it could be very damaging. But what they have sacrificed in terms of privacy represents a huge gain for human understanding and, if it doesn’t sound too pretentious, these films give them some very special kind of immortality.
First Run Features have released all of the Up films on DVD in the USA, all of which are region-free. This latest release is up to the high standards of the others, although the lack of subtitles remains very irksome indeed.
The film is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 format and this looks fine, although the footage from earlier instalments has presumably been cropped from fullscreen. The picture quality is very good, reflecting the standard of the original material; the 2006 footage is naturally a lot better than that from 1964. The recent material is beautiful to look at and the older stuff is clear without being particularly impressive. The two-channel soundtrack is very good indeed with eminently clear dialogue – the crackle on the 1964 sequences is characteristic of the original recording.
There is only one notable extra on the disc but it’s an excellent one. Roger Ebert has long been a vocal admirer of the Up series and here he gets the chance to spend half an hour in conversation with Michael Apted. There’s a touch of mutual congratulation but Ebert asks some tough questions and, as usual, knows his subject inside-out. Michael Apted comes across as somewhat solemn but very intelligent and he gains points for refusing to dodge difficult issues. He is reflective about his own relationship to the subjects and cagy about how long the series can possibly go on now that some of the participants are becoming reluctant to continue taking part. There’s a lot packed into this interview and it’s a valuable companion to the documentary.
We also get a biography of Michael Apted, a photo gallery and some trailers for other First Run Features releases.
49 Up is a superb documentary from a magnificent series and this DVD from First Run Features is essential viewing.