It’s a rare privilege to see humans grow from childhood to maturity, and one we typically only get with our own family members. For 55 years, the Up series has provided that intriguing opportunity with a set group of individuals, seen through the lens of a simple thesis – that a 7-year-old child already displays the character of who he or she will become.
Every seven years beginning in 1964, documentary filmmaker Michael Apted (himself now 78) has explored this idea, layering it with a critique of the British class system and the way it influences people’s paths. It’s a fascinating takeoff point. It’s also bittersweet in 63 Up, as his former child subjects, now middle-aged, wrestle with their mortality and their regrets, reflecting on their lives with poignant vulnerability.
I remember seeing two installments of the series (14 Up and 21 Up) during a high school summer program, and while the earlier films are enthralling, they aren’t required viewing for the latest entry. In 63 Up, we meet the series’ 14 subjects one at a time and get to linger with each of them, even those who have dropped out or passed away, revisiting their earlier selves as the film knits past and present together to reveal both continuities and surprises.
East Ender Tony, who dreamed of being a jockey at 7 but had to abandon the profession, has moved to a rural retirement community where he can visit horses every day. Lynn, who as a young adult expresses a desire never to have children, later has two of them, as well as a career as a beloved children’s librarian. Other characters face hard roads as they struggle through cancer diagnoses and mental illness.
The film chronicles the passage of time through its participants but also through the medium itself as it moves from black-and-white interviews to grainy, then more vibrant, color. We mark each scene’s moment in time through such clues as film quality and fashion choices. In each segment, the person looks back on his or her life and to the road ahead, and also comments on how it feels to be in the Up series. Most complain about tabloid attention, and one astutely notes that the series has given his relationships and major life decisions “more intensity and focus.”
In all of them, they reveal what one subject, Peter, refers to as “the tapestry of a lifetime.” Overall, the adults still relate to their 7-year-old selves, and they seem more or less content and hopeful about their remaining years. What a gift it is to spend a few hours with these wise people, who are not so different from us.
Starts Dec. 25 at Grail Moviehouse