By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated October 04, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

There’s a Jesuit saying that goes something like ”Give me the child until he is 7 and I will give you the man.” 49 Up says, here is the man — and behold, he is a grandfather, too. At least, Tony is, the cab driver who, as a boy, dreamed of becoming a jockey. The 14 British children of varied background who were first interviewed about their lives 42 years ago in the trailblazing TV documentary Seven Up! are now nearing the half-century mark. And the seventh edition of this singular series, begun by a team from Britain’s Granada TV and devotedly updated every seven years hence under the direction of Michael Apted (he began as a Granada researcher), only deepens our awe: Not only do we marvel at the miracle of individual human personality and the self-acceptance that can be a hard-won benefit of aging, but we also give thanks for the honor these men and women have bestowed on us in continuing to open their private selves to millions of strangers. Even the ones who have chosen not to participate make a silent statement about the dignity of choice.

As ever, Apted weaves in snippets of previous footage to illuminate the shape of the person we see before us. Neil, the sensitive boy who had unraveled by the time he was in his 20s, has always been the series’ most fragile participant, and it’s deeply moving to meet up with him again — now sturdy in his own way. But it may well be Jackie, one of the working-class children, who comes to represent this latest installment at its most powerful: Challenging her unseen interlocutor, she makes clear that she is who she is — not who Apted or anybody else who ever saw her at 7, 14, 21, and up might have imagined or wanted her to be. As real as reality TV is fake, 49 Up is a precious document, and must viewing.

[Previous films in the Up series were collected in a DVD box reviewed here in 2004]