56 Up: the everyday epic

The latest in Michael Apted’s series, undoubtedly one of the great achievements in documentary history, opens at Cinéma du Parc this weekend.

Michael Apted’s Up series, which catches up with several English people of diverse socio-economic backgrounds every seven years (Apted picked up the torch from Montreal-born filmmaker Paul Almond, who made the first film Seven Up in 1964) is undoubtedly one of the great achievements in documentary history. The latest, 56 Up, opens at Cinéma du Parc this weekend.

You don’t have to have seen the rest of the series to appreciate the story, characters or themes — Apted cuts back to the earlier films repeatedly, showing the characters growing up before our eyes (as well as the development of film aesthetics: 60s black and white, 70s colour and grain, 80s-90s blandness and today’s utilitarian digital look).

Even though the film is nearly two and a half hours long, each character only gets a few minutes. Some of them are considerably more interesting than others. Neil Hughes, the onetime homeless drifter who’s now a marginal rural politician, gives the film both drama and discomfort as he squirms in his seat under Apted’s indelicate personal questions. The series’ implicit questions about the continuing British class system are very much on display, even though one of the characters (from the upper class, of course) calls this theme “a farce.”

Inevitably, the series has become a bit self-reflexive, as its subjects, proto-reality TV stars, are minor celebrities in England. One character talks about being asked for his autograph; another, who dropped out after 28 Up, has returned to the series with the stated goal of promoting his country-folk band. One of the most interesting things about the film is Apted’s choice to include the characters’ candid comments about the series and their relationship to it — often ambivalent, sometimes tortured. “It’s like a bad book; I stick with it even though I hate it,” one of them goes so far as to say.

Watching 56 Up, what stands out is that despite being worthy of its epic praise — Roger Ebert called it “one of the great imaginative leaps in film” and one of his top 10 films of all time — the series is fundamentally about ordinary people and their everyday lives. In a sense, the form is more interesting than the content. All the same, it’s definitely worth seeing, for its moments of depth and beauty and for its sheer uniqueness as a project. ■

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