In 1962, director Michael Apted filmed a series of interviews with 7-year-old British schoolchildren of various social and economic backgrounds. He returned to those children seven years later, and every seven years after that, updating their lives into a unique series of collective documentary portraits: 7 Up, 7+7 Up, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, and the new 42 Up. It would be tempting to describe the Up movies as a miracle in the history of nonfiction filmmaking, if they didn’t also represent one of the cinema’s most singularly squandered opportunities. For despite the heroic diligence with which Apted has executed his epic concept, he approaches each of these films with the plodding spirit of a demographic-minded bureaucrat.
On some level, 42 Up is a startling home-movie time capsule. Simply to behold the aging process with such intimacy is enough to give you a shudder, and as the film cross-cuts among its participants in six different eras, we confront the inevitable and overwhelming arc of pure-hearted childhood optimism refined into the pleasures and confusions of young adulthood and, finally, the calmer comforts of middle age. Most of the subjects now have families, and most have turned out well; even Neil, the jittery, troubled drifter whose life unraveled so starkly in 28 Up, has gotten himself together (he’s now a London councilman).
Apted offers glancing insights into jobs, homes, ambitions, financial and marital status. Yet the people in the Up movies remain, in some intrinsic way, the sum of their data. For all their openness on camera, we get almost no sense of their dreams, their eccentricities and inner lives as human beings. Apted himself has moved far beyond this series (he directed the new James Bond picture), but in 42 Up, he revives it as an intriguing yet reductive experience, one that makes the drama of middle-class life in the second half of the century appear far less mysterious than it is. B-