Review: 56 Up (2012)

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Director: Michael Apted
Country: UK
Genre: Documentary
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: 56 Up is now showing in theatres

Since the earliest days of cinema, when Auguste and Louis Lumière captured the simple sight of workers leaving a factory at the end of a day’s work, film has been used to document the world around, to capture reality in the full scope of its realness. The medium may have rapidly shifted toward fictional representation, but our fixation with cinema’s indexical abilities to present life as lived has never gone away: just look at the phenomenal success of last year’s The Imposter. It’s for this fascination that Michael Apted’s Up series—a sequence of septennial documentaries following the same group of British children since the mid-‘60s—has gradually garnered esteem as one of the most ambitious, extraordinary projects ever filmed.

Apted brings with this latest instalment the weight of almost fifty years of material, his manifold cuts between the eight instalments seeing bright-eyed youths morph to wrinkled adults before our eyes. The key recognisable features still present in each face make their current incarnations seem almost caked in old-age make-up: where have those children gone?

up3It is, above all, its ordinariness which makes the Up series so extraordinary: to the world of 2013, the proliferation of reality TV hardly makes noteworthy the documentation of average life, yet Apted brings with this latest instalment the weight of almost fifty years of material, his manifold cuts between the eight instalments seeing bright-eyed youths morph to wrinkled adults before our eyes. The key recognisable features still present in each face make their current incarnations seem almost caked in old-age make-up: where have those children gone? It’s long been Apted’s thesis—and indeed the premise of the original Seven Up!, intended only as a one-off special—that the British class system facilitates easy prediction of the future, but the films, true to life, seem to have a will of their own.

Observing these individuals at fifty-six, one could conclude an accuracy to Apted’s original claim, yet the series has evolved to territories ever more existential and humanistic beyond their original socio-political intentions. The death of parents; the birth of grandchildren; the loss of jobs; and the finding of love: all are covered in 56 Up, adding to the immense canon of life events this series has slowly chronicled. There are few frills and little excitement, no theatrics and only basic drama, yet to examine the evolution of these lives since seven years ago is as captivating as anything else now playing on cinema screens. To see these lives unfold—its triumphs and disappointments encountered with even frequency, its difficulties faced with dignity and strength, its aspirations lost and contentment reached—is as to see our own, to understand the path not of a life, but of life itself; as one of the subjects themselves notes: “It isn’t a picture, really, of the essence of Nick, or Suzy; it’s a picture of… everyman; it’s how a person, any person, how they change.”

…an alarmingly accurate portrait of how it is to be at each stage of life, reaching a collective collage from these fragments of disparate existences. Its magnificent truth is felt in every second of film, every little familiar moment from our own experiences of life.

up4There was a startling moment, I believe in 28 Up, where I found myself finishing a sentence of one of the participants: such is the subjective experience of this series, giving all who witness it—in some sense—a reflection of their own lives through the subject with whom they most closely identify. It’s no coincidence that most people will cite that episode covering the age most proximal to their own as their favourite; the common ground of these thirteen individuals—only one of the original children has left the series—produces an alarmingly accurate portrait of how it is to be at each stage of life, reaching a collective collage from these fragments of disparate existences. Its magnificent truth is felt in every second of film, every little familiar moment from our own experiences of life.

Compared though it may be by some of the group to the likes of Big Brother today, the Up series has never been about the spectacle of “reality”, but rather its sincerity: the earnest, universal truths of living. It stands, in its now-eight instalments, as a marvellous testament to the evolution of the individual. It stands also—tangentially—as a chronicle of the evolution of technology, the progress of Apted’s cameras’ quality and versatility from the monochrome of 1964 to the digital photography of now a fitting microcosm of the vast cinematic developments that, for all the high-concept fantasy they can present in three dimensions and higher frame rates, can scarcely muster a fraction of the immersion this series offers. Nothing bespeaks this better than the career of Apted himself: amidst directing action with James Bond and fantasy with Aslan the lion, he has returned every seven years to continue this series, to simply observe the passage of time and the presence of life. The movies, be they factual or fictional, offer a profound means to pass comment upon most every facet of life; 56 Up, taken as one grand whole with its seven predecessors, is not really a movie: it is life.

[notification type=”star”]88/100 ~ GREAT. The Up series has never been about the spectacle of “reality”, but rather its sincerity: the earnest, universal truths of living. It stands, in its now-eight instalments, as a marvellous testament to the evolution of the individual.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.

  • This series has always fascinated me, but somehow I’ve never watch a single installment.

  • It was only with this one coming up that I finally got around to watching it. Couldn’t stop, it’s insanely fascinating.

  • It’s a must see.. check it out.