'63 Up': Film Review

Courtesy BritBox
A death in the family is the main surprise in this mostly comfortable installment.
11/27/2019

Michael Apted's landmark documentary series makes its latest every-seven-years appearance.

Michael Apted's Up series, which returns every seven years to interview the same group of subjects and see how life is going, long ago established itself as a humanist treasure. In cinemas, it foreshadows both long-view documentary projects like Hoop Dreams and Richard Linklater's longitudinal feature Boyhood; on small screens (the series was commissioned by Granada in the U.K.), it lets us see what the words "reality television" could have meant in a better world.

(Apted didn't create the series — he was a collaborator on the first installment, and took over directing duties from the second onward.)

Now back to look at its diverse group of Brits at age 63, the project is settling into a grandfatherly comfort. Gone are the days when the course of someone's life was likely to shift in completely unpredictable ways, or when a bold new ambition might lead to unexpected success. Though fortunes can, of course, still shift, the friends we've made here are mostly settled, leading lives they understand surrounded by people they love. Now, inevitably, health and mortality become the main source of drama. Sadly, we learn of the first death in the cohort; another member is enduring grave illness. Still, the film (which isn't a good place to start, for those new to Up) is far from a downer; it suggests that the next installment (and hopefully a couple after that) will have the feel of warm, sometimes bittersweet family reunions.

As has become its pattern, the pic moves methodically through stand-alone chapters, each summing up the progress of one participant with little or no reference to others. A wonderful exception here is a segment on Paul and Symon, who were interviewed together in 7 Up while living in a charity home. The two remained in touch over the years, even after Paul moved to Australia and spent a period living nomadically there with his wife. Now we watch Symon and his wife visit Paul's family in Australia for the first time. It's a happy occasion, but it also supplies some of the film's most poignant moments, as the two men reflect on the lack of confidence they've both endured over the years and relate their troubled childhoods to their attitudes as fathers and grandfathers.

Apted's approach to sadder material, like the death of the children's librarian Lynn, is to focus on legacy. He interviews Lynn's husband and two daughters, emphasizing the difference she made in her community and the pride she took in her work. Presumably, 70 Up won't continue observing the family, even though Apted has always shown an interest in how his subjects' offspring are doing.

Brexit and other world events come up occasionally in these interviews, but not with the kind of polarizing tone we're used to from the news. Tony, the wannabe horse jockey who instead became a cabbie and prospered, reports that "I was a Leaver," but admits to having second thoughts now; Peter, who dropped out of the series for a long spell after being criticized for anti-Thatcher comments, predictably takes a different stance. Nick, the scientist who has long lived in the U.S., gets asked about Donald Trump. "Oh, gosh" is his eloquent reply.

Self-referentiality plays an increasing role, as, in between good-natured talk of their ambivalence at being dragged into the spotlight every seven years, Apted makes a point of asking each interviewee about the series' initial premise — that a person's character is mostly set by the age of 7. Most seem to agree that there's a fair bit of truth in the idea; shown footage of themselves at 7 or 14 or 21, they see the people they are today. Audience members may be less convinced of the minor role outside events had in making them who they've become. But many will be looking forward to the next reunion.

Production company: Britbox
Distributor: Britbox
Director: Michael Apted
Producer: Claire Lewis
Executive producers: Sally Evans, Cort Kristensen, Soumya Sriraman
Director of photography: George Jesse Turner
Editor: Kim Horton

144 minutes