“56 Up”

Susan Granger’s review of “56 Up” (First Run Features)


Back in 1964, British director Michael Apted (“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Gorillas in the Mist,” “The World is Not Enough,” “Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”) embarked on an ambitious project for Grenada Television: creating a documentary that explored the Jesuit maxim: “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”

To that end, Apted interviewed 14 seven year-old children from diverse socio-economic backgrounds from all over England to evaluate how the rigidity of the British class structure affected their lives. He asked them probing questions, like what they wanted to do when they grew up and how they felt about love and marriage.  Since then, he has questioned them again every seven years, examining the status of their lives. Now they are 56, coping with the global financial crisis.

At an early age, both Andrew and John had their trajectories charted: attending prestigious universities, like Cambridge and Oxford, and becoming lawyers. Their classmate, Charles, however, opted out of the series, becoming a documentary filmmaker on his own. Across the class divide, Cockney Tony wanted to be a jockey and now drives a London cab. Once homeless, Neil has become involved in Cumbrian politics. Jackie is a twice-divorced, single mother of three and suffering with rheumatoid arthritis. Sue, who never attended college, administers a university program, while children’s librarian Lynn has been prematurely forced into retirement. And Peter, who quit the series after “21 Up,” returns to plug his amateur acoustic band.

Viewing it now, it’s uncanny how Michael Apted’s concept was a precursor of reality television. It’s not only enlightening to hear how the ambivalent, yet loyal participants evaluate living their lives on-camera but also revealing how they openly complain about Apted’s editing choices, acknowledging that his primary mission has been to create compelling viewing, rather than to present an accurate representation of who they are.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “56 Up” is an insightful 9, reflecting on how life can be full of surprises.