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The Up Series

(1964, 1971, 1978, 1985, 1992, 1999, 2006)

Directed by

Michael Apted

 42: Forty Two Up Poster49 Up Poster

Review by Zach Saltz

 

The device is simple: Profile a group of children when they are seven years old, and return to their lives in seven year increments as they mature.  Michael Apted and his film crew have now done this through five decades and produced some of the most engaging, compelling stories ever to be profiled in any medium, print or cinema. The Up Series has been compared to time-lapse photography; we see its characters grow and change right before our eyes.  It is essentially a longitudinal psychological study that has been miraculously put on celluloid so that the spectator becomes not only the viewer of a film, but an observer of human personality and behavioral development.

One amazing feature of the films is how eerily accurate some of the characters are at seven or fourteen predicting their lives at a later point.  This is, of course, a point of emphasis in regard to John, Andrew, and Charles – Apted’s subtle way of bringing to light the concept of scholastic and vocational predestination in traditional British aristocracy.  But predestination is also a key feature in the decidedly lower-class children’s lives – just not in the form of the names of schools.  Tony, for example, is able to predict at seven that he will become a jockey at 14, and then, even at that age, foreseeing possible failure as a jockey, is able to predict a life as a taxi driver by 21.  Neil says at 21 that he’d perhaps be interested in a life of politics, and by 42, finds a position in Parliament.  But how much are these predictions borne out of seemingly distant dreams hoping to someday be fulfilled, or are they simply the result of upper-class nobility (John, in one of his more unusually sage comments, is keen to point out that the film most decidedly does not portray his sleepless nights and cram sessions, connoting that bourgeoisie affluence does not come as easily as the series would have you imagine).

I love all of the characters of the film – it’s downright impossible to choose a favorite.  It would be easy to relegate these characters as dynamic and unchanging – then we would most certainly love cute little seven-year-old Neil forever and detest the hypocritical, snobbish 21-year-old John.  But it isn’t that easy.  Staying with these people is like being a devoted fan to a sports team; they have their good years and their bad, and no matter the situation, we must always stand by and root for them, even if their situation looks dire.  In the first few films, my favorites were Neil and Bruce, since I seem to carry many of their attributes – introversion, intelligence, a sly black wit (when I first watched the series, it was with my mother, who noted that Bruce at 14 was a replica of myself at that age).  I’ve realized though, as the characters have grown older and wiser, that Neil and Bruce are no longer my favorites; now it is Tony and Sue.  Tony constantly seems to ignore all viewer expectations of him; at 21, we are convinced (as Apted was too, evidently) that Tony seems headed for a life of crime, and therefore a negative figure.  But lo and behold, Tony surprises us, marries Deb, and becomes astonishingly successful (having a vacation house in Spain with a cabbie’s income is quite impressive).  At 35, however, trouble seems to be setting in, and the marriage with Deb has been nearly wrecked by his infidelity.  But by 42, it seems that the relative patches have been cleared up for now, at least, and by 49, we are positively convinced that Tony and Deb will remain together the rest of their lives.

Sue is another figure who has really grown on me over the last few films.  At 21, she seems more optimistic (or naïve, based on one’s own assessment) about marriage and children than Jackie or Lynn.  There are very few times that she ever appears upset – even after her marriage falls apart and she is forced to return to work, she seems grateful for everything that she has been given (at 35 and 42, it’s her children, at 49, it’s her boyfriend and her new dog).  She still has a lifelong dream of singing, which of course is not practical in any way, but I admire her perseverance and refusal to give up believing in the impossible – something everyone else seemed to vainly give up by 21, with the major exception of Neil.

Divorce plays an interesting factor in all of the participants’ lives.  Amazingly, it affects all of them in some way, whether it’s their parents splitting (Paul, Symon, Andrew, Suzy, Neil) or they themselves experiencing the break-up of a companionship (Symon, Sue, Jackie, Nick).  The couples that have endured – particularly Paul and Sue, Suzy and Rupert, and Andrew and Jane – provide a solid model for viewers involved in serious relationships to follow.  Paul and Sue’s marriage, which seems to be the best and strongest of all the participants’ relationships, shows how a couple must find quality time with one another before tying the proverbial knot (this is evidenced by their mythical journey across the outback in their twenties) and a recognition of mutual faults (Sue is always playfully chiding Paul for his lack of self-confidence, while Paul, at 42, speaks of her occasionally lavish spending habits).  Andrew and Jane point out that they still make an effort to spend at least one night out per week in spite of their hectic schedules, which any marriage counselor would applaud loudly.  Suzy and Rupert’s marriage is incredibly strong, too, though one suspects that it derives from Suzy being saved from a web of dangerous oblivion shortly after her stunning change at 21.

Death is also an unavoidable part of the participants’ lives.  Tony, at both 42 and 49, gets teary eyed at the very mention of his deceased mother.  Lynn and Suzy both regret not being at their parents’ deathbeds.  There is a sort of morbid fascination as the characters grow older – we ask ourselves (as I’m sure Apted does himself) who will be the first to develop a major illness or lose a spouse or even die themselves.  What will happen to the series?  Some of the films’ most endearing characters are the main figures spouses or friends (Paul’s wife, Suzy’s husband, Nick’s deaf brother, Simon’s daughter).  Will the film continue to profile these people so that the viewer will still be able to keep in touch?  One can only hope so.

But perhaps the greatest virtue of the Up Series is the way it affects the viewer on a philosophical level.  How would we react if, at 28 or 35, we saw a video of ourselves at seven or 14 talking about our wildest dreams?  Would we be disappointed that these dreams most likely never cam true?  Would we wish that we could return to our younger, more idealistic selves?  Tony, no doubt, would love to return to 14; even at 28, with a successful job, loving family, and great prospects, his greatest fulfillment was riding as a jockey.  Neil says he would return to seven, where life is careless and free, full of folly and void of disappointment.  The great convenience of the “Up” Series is how we can go back for them, with just a click of a button; the only trouble is, some memories are too hard to endure and, to quote the great Housman poem, the happy highways were we went, we cannot come again.

 

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