56 Up

Movie Information

The Story: The most recent in a series of documentaries following a group of people every seven years from the age of 7. The Lowdown: Engaging, lively and filled with life, Michael Apted's latest entry in this series of documentaries is definitely good company.
Genre: Documentary
Director: Michael Apted
Starring: Michael Apted (interviewer voice), Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Basset, Symon Basterfield, Neil Hughes
Rated: NR

For those uninitiated with the concept of Michael Apted’s long-running series of TV documentaries (that have mostly seen theatrical life in the U.S.), 56 Up is the latest in a series that started back in 1964 with Seven Up. The idea was — and remains — to document the lives of 14 people from various backgrounds with updates every seven years to catch up with them and see how their lives are turning out. So if you started watching these films in 1964, the now 56-year-old “cast” will perhaps seem like old friends. However, it is not a necessity to have seen the other entries (I’ve never seen one before) in order to appreciate this most recent one. The new film deftly inserts footage from the other entries to establish and chart the changes from age 7 to 56. Chances are that you’ll come away from this long film (144 minutes with very few credits) feeling a sense of knowing its characters. If you’re the right age — and I am — you may also come away taking stock of your own life.

Almost as interesting — though never dealt with by the film — is placing Apted’s own life and career in the context of this movie. The original film was directed by Canadian TV director Paul Almond — with Apted (then 23) as a researcher. By the time of the second film, Apted had a string of TV credits to his name and took over. By the third, he had some feature films to his name — including the critically praised Stardust (1974). By the time of 28 Up, Apted was a world-class filmmaker with films like Agatha (1979), Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and Gorky Park (1984) to his credit. He still kept on with the series, though, and now that his own star has waned — he mostly lands quasi-faith-based movies these days — the documentary series has once again become his highest profile work, which might be fairly sobering for him, too.

The film itself is certainly well done — and often very engaging, depending to a large extent on which person it’s dealing with. That’s, of course, to be expected. In any cross-section of people, some just have more interesting stories than others. It’s probably equally unsurprising that the most interesting of the characters is the one, who — at least on the surface — has had the roughest time of it. In this case, that falls to Neil — a man whose life has been plagued with mental problems, homelessness and an inability to quite fit in. What makes his story the most satisfying, though, is that he seems to have found himself as a minor elected official (on the Liberal Democrat ticket) in a small town in Cumbria, U.K. It’s hardly plain sailing, but his story affords the film a hopefulness it otherwise wouldn’t quite have — though it is gratifying to see others in their 50s successfully reinventing themselves. All in all, these people are very much worth getting to know. Not Rated

Starts Friday at Fine Arts Theatre

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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9 thoughts on “56 Up

  1. Xanadon't

    I started watching the series a couple years ago and made it to 42 Up before hitting burn out. Neil was probably the most fascinating character through the series. In fact, it’s something of a relief to find out he’s still alive.

    I should pick back up where I left off before this leaves town.

  2. Ken Hanke

    This one has the advantage of offering copious excerpts from the earlier films to help orient you. (That has the downside of making it 144 minutes long.) Those were probably more of a boon to me since I don’t as a rule watch documentaries unless I have to, so I was really starting from nothing but a knowledge of the concept.

  3. Xanadon't

    This one has the advantage of offering copious excerpts from the earlier films to help orient you. (That has the downside of making it 144 minutes long.)

    All of them work this way to one degree or another. At this point it would be appreciated, but since I watched the 5 or 6 in the series within the same month or two, I think this is part of what made my interest abruptly fade before I got to the finish line.

    Well, that and a general sense of documentary fatigue syndrome.

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