The series, nearing retirement age itself, prompts questions about how much time is left for its subjects, for its director, for all of us, and reminds us that we cannot know.
By Sarah Larsen | The New Yorker
The Jesuit maxim “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”—portentous, mysterious, mildly weird—is well known to fans of Michael Apted’s “Up” series of documentaries, which has followed the lives of a collection of British people since 1964. As a young researcher at Granada Television, in Manchester, a year out of university, Apted helped choose the children who became the subjects of the first film, “Seven Up!”; every seven years since, he’s given us the gift of an update. In “63 Up,” which opens in the U.S. this week, we begin to see the end. The subjects’ physical changes startle and fascinate us; watching aging in these films is like scanning the progressive class-year groups at a high-school reunion. At sixty-three, our friends aren’t elderly but are just beginning to look like senior citizens; they’re talking about retirement, grandchildren, how their lives have gone. But everyone’s personality—Apted’s included—is exactly the same. As each portrait begins, anticipation sets in as we await new details about an ordinary life.
The “Up” series is nearly spellbinding in its sense of accumulated meaning—a feeling that’s enhanced by its form. Over the years, Apted and his longtime editor, Kim Horton, have incorporated several clips again and again, and seeing and hearing them strengthens the films’ incantatory quality. Many lines from “Seven Up!” have become as familiar as song lyrics: “I wanna be a jockey when I grow up, yeah, I wanna be a jockey when I grow up!”; “I read the Financial Times”; “My heart’s desire is to see my daddy”; “I’m going to work at Woolworth’s”; “Stop that at once!”; and so on. The backbeat could come from the Monotones’ “What Would I Do,” to which our young innocents dance together at a party, balloons popping violently as the classes mingle. At this point, “Seven Up!,” black-and-white and bursting with energy, feels like a sacred artifact, beautiful and odd in detail, to which we return again and again to scrutinize against the passing of time. “63 Up” is the ninth in the series; Apted, who has also directed other acclaimed films, including “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Nell,” is seventy-eight. The question of how much time the series has left quietly permeates what could be the final entry.
The profiles start with a propulsive bang: Tony the cabbie, a fan favorite, and his rough-and-tumble Cockney exhortations. Tony the boy has always been evident in Tony the man. In “Seven Up!,” he races out of his building in public housing in the East End of London, falls flat on his face, pops up again, continues running, scrambles over a chain-link fence, and gets in line at the entrance of his school. In class, he proceeds to wiggle around, impossible to contain. (“His girlfriend calls him a monkey,” the narrator says.) At fourteen, in the faded color film of 1970, he’s working at a stable; at twenty-one, he’s a former jockey, and the phrase “photo finish” becomes another refrain. Tony has clear objectives in life, which he pursues with vigor; if he fails, or the world fails him, he moves forward. “I wasn’t good enough,” he says, about horse racing, and then proceeds to drive a taxi. In “63 Up,” he’s cheerful as ever, but economic forces have dinged him a bit. His second home in Spain is no more (owning it was “a dream come true for a boy in the buildings”), and his taxi income has suffered (Uber is “really ’urtful”), but he and his wife live comfortably, in a rural complex for “over-fifties,” populated by “traditional East Enders”—hmm—near horses and forests and foxes. When Apted asks Tony about Brexit, his answer might surprise us; his political thinking has progressed, too. As you contemplate all this and watch Tony jogging through the woods at sixty-three, juxtaposed with a clip of him at seven, the funny little monkey scrambling to school, I dare you not to weep. Ah, Tony! Ah, humanity!
The other portraits unfurl with similar propulsiveness, if not as literally. Andrew, the Financial Times enthusiast, makes for a mellow, astringent counterpoint to Tony—red wine after a ploughman’s lunch—but, like Tony, he has followed a clearly mapped life plan. At seven, he knew where he’d go to school; at fourteen, he hoped to be a “fairly successful” solicitor; in adulthood, he became one. Andrew’s schoolmate John (“I read the Observer and the Times”), similarly posh, also predicted his life accurately; he became a barrister, and has long been “a Q.C. in a silk gown,” he says. In each film, Andrew has worn an expression of placid inscrutability, and John an expression of wry peevishness, both of which have added a hint of mystery to the spectacle of their lives playing out just as we’d expected. Apted is deft with his juxtapositions throughout: in Andrew’s section, he shows us how the ramshackle old barn that Andrew bought in his twenties (“completely derelict, nothing in it except for manure”) and the property around it have been transformed into a massive, manicured country estate, which he calmly tends with his wife, Jane. John is still into Bulgaria and piano-playing, has survived a nasty fall from a horse, and resents having been typecast as a Tory toff. As a boy, he was “ambitious for fame and power,” but he sees himself as having lost that. “My Bulgarian ancestors were all prime ministers and such, but I never threw my hat in the ring,” he says, smirking just as he did at fourteen. “I don’t have any regrets.”