First Run Features // 1964 // 710 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // October 11th, 2007
In 1964 a group of 7-year-old children were interviewed for the documentary Seven Up! Michael Apted has been back to film them every seven years.
In 1964, Granada Television commissioned a short documentary titled Seven Up! Inspired by the Jesuit saying, "Give me a child until he is 7 years old, and I will give you the man," producers profiled 14 7-year-old children, and loosely speculated on what sort of lives they might lead.
Almost as an afterthought, director Michael Apted, who was a researcher on the original Seven Up!, returned to profile these same 14 subjects seven years later for Seven Plus 7. Apted has since returned every seven years to create a new documentary updating the lives of the original 14 participants, or at least as many as will consent to being filmed. The Up Series collects all seven of these documentaries -- from Seven Up! to 49 Up in one box set.
The 14 children initially profiled in Seven Up! were meant to represent the varying social classes in Britain. Some initially introduced and interviewed in groups, and continue to be profiled together in subsequent films. The 14 include:
* Andrew, Charles, and John
Along with Suzy, these three represent the poshest strata of British society. They attended a swanky private school and already have their future planned out by the age of seven.
Bruce is the son of missionaries, and is clearly the most concerned with social justice of all the participants. As a young man he was very concerned with poverty and racial discrimination, and grows up to be a teacher in a low-income neighborhood.
* Jackie, Lynn, and Sue
These three girls are from a working class section of London. They were close friends as 7-year-olds, but grew apart in adulthood. Despite this, Apted often chooses to bring them together for interviews later in life.
* Neil and Peter
Neil and Peter are two middle-class boys from Liverpool. While Peter would drop out of the series after getting sacked from his teaching position for expressing unpopular political views, Neil's struggles make him one of the most captivating subjects in the series.
Nick's home in the English countryside was so remote that he and his brothers were the only boys in the village. Despite his provincial upbringing, he moves to America and becomes a successful university professor. Nick is probably the most articulate subject in the series, which makes him particularly intriguing.
* Paul and Symon
Paul and Symon were raised in an orphanage. Early in life Paul moved to Australia, where he became a bricklayer. Symon -- the only subject of color -- works in a series of menial jobs as a young man, and his early aimlessness makes him one of the more at-risk participants.
Suzy is the only woman in the series who comes from the upper class. Though her posh mannerisms are almost absurd in the first few films, her journey is particularly interesting, in that it is almost impossible to predict how she would eventually turn out.
Tony is a rough kid from London's East End. He was interested in horses, and spent most of his youth trying to realize his dream of becoming a jockey. Though his straight-talking style could make him seem like a simpleton, his philosophy on life, based largely on love and simplicity, shows him to be one of the wisest in the series.
While volumes have been written on the value of art, clearly one of its aspirations is to help us better understand our own lives. And if art were judged solely by this standard, The Up Series might just be a collection of the most impressive films ever made.
Individually, each movie in the The Up Series is interesting and illuminating. Viewed as a whole, they are revelatory. I am not yet sure to what extent they have affected me, but since finishing 49 Up I have found myself suddenly possessed with a whole new outlook and appreciation for life -- both for my own and for others.
At age 7, the children of Seven Up! are, for the most part, cute and adorably outspoken, making this episode seem almost like a British version of Kids Say the Darndest Things. If the movie's subjects were not profiled in subsequent films, Seven Up! would elicit little more than mild interest. Its bombastic score, booming narrator, and grainy film stock all testify to its age and mundane conventions.
But things get much more interesting in Seven Plus 7. And not just interesting, but somewhat sad. Suddenly, after only seven years passage, most of those adorable children of Seven Up! became quiet, awkward, and gawky. After overcoming my initial shock, I began recalling my own life at 14; I wasn't very pretty or articulate either. And come to think of it, very few people are.
The biggest shock in 21 is that those children from Seven Up! are pretty much adults. Only a few hours earlier they were skipping to school and talking about how much they hate vegetables; now they're smoking, getting married, and having children of their own. Somehow, while there's nothing inherently unusual with a 21-year-old parent, there is something initially shocking about these individuals reproducing. By getting to know them as children, we are consciously aware that the subjects in The Up Series were once very young -- and we are constantly reminded of this because there are remnants of this youth constant throughout one's life.
At 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, and most likely beyond, these individuals grow and mature, but they always retain attributes and mannerisms that were present when we first met them as children. This causes us to both examine our own lives (What has changed? What has been retained?), but also to reexamine the lives of others. After finishing the series I spent most of the following day at work examining my coworkers. These were individuals I had worked with for over a year, but for the first time I was consciously aware that they had once been children; and the children they had been gave birth to the person they had become.
Even random people on the street become far more intriguing. For the first time I would notice certain nondescript individuals -- the balding, the portly, and the homely that almost invisibly walk amongst us -- and try to discern what they could have looked like at seven, and 14, and 21, etc. And by doing this, I realized, if only abstractly, the multitudes each of us contain.
Though none of the individuals profiled in The Up Series seem to be on a journey that would traditionally be depicted in a documentary, they are all intriguing nonetheless. This is because, despite all the limitations of the narrative form, we know them intimately. This intimacy comes from knowing them as children, from director Apted's concise but keen updates, and from our own ability to see our own experience mirrored in theirs. The Up Series is a singular viewing experience, an articulate encapsulation of life itself, and it is one of the most moving and influential I have ever experienced.
That said, one should not expect any sort of technical brilliance from The Up Series. Though Apted is a very capable director, many of the movies here were shot for minimal budgets and with limited care shown to sound and picture quality. As would be expected, the films from the 1960s and 70s and 80s are particularly poor. However, the quality of footage produced in 42 Up and49 Up improves dramatically over their predecessors.
The most prominent special feature is Apted's audio commentary on 42 Up. He discusses at length the process of creating the series, which to a certain extent demystifies them. Still, this satiated much of my curiosity. There is also an informative interview of Apted by film critic Roger Ebert, who has been an eager promoter of the film series.
Towards the end of his commentary track, Apted explains why he finds the series -- to which he has devoted an extraordinary amount of time and effort -- so vital:
"These are ordinary people, not eccentrics. The power of it is you can identify, and their stories become your stories. At its best it makes you ask questions about your own life, your own development."
Indeed, these films are more thought provoking than anything I have ever seen. I cannot recommend strongly enough.
Review content copyright © 2007 Brendan Babish; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 710 Minutes
Release Year: 1964
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Exclusive interview: Roger Ebert talks with Michael Apted
* Audio commentary by Michael Apted on 42 Up
* Photo gallery for each film
* Apted biography
* IMDb: Seven Up!
* IMDb: Seven Plus 7
* IMDb: 21
* IMDb: 28 Up
* IMDb: 35 Up
* IMDb: 42 Up
* IMDb: 49 Up
* DVD Verdict Review: The Up Series (2005 release)
* DVD Verdict Review: 49 Up