There’s an old Jesuit saying sometimes attributed to Aristotle, “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” It struck the fancy of filmmaker Paul Almond, who in 1963 conducted interviews with over a dozen 7-year-old children from a cross-section of socioeconomic backgrounds for Granada Television. The breezy, 40-minute documentary “Seven Up!” showcased some cute kids and tart questions about the rigidity of the British class system, but would hardly be remembered today had Almond’s young researcher Michael Apted not gone back to revisit the children 7 years later, and then another 7 years after that. He made a habit of it for the next few decades, and now — a full 56 years since it began — the series’ ninth installment “63 Up” arrives in theaters like a reunion with old friends.
It’s a curious thing, how such a simple idea — recurring chats with regular folks over time — can contain multitudes. A young Roger Ebert famously called the “Up” series “the noblest project in cinema history,” a brazen bit of hyperbole from which he refused to back down when he wrote about “56 Up,” the last of these pictures Roger would review before his death three months later. I do wish he’d been able to watch this new one — the movie’s mood of melancholy reflection and acceptance is very much in the key of Ebert’s late writing. (I also think he’d like to see how everybody’s doing and would be happy to know that most of them made it into the next film.)
Apted and his editors always preface their interviews with scenes and snippets from the previous pictures, so in a span of several minutes, we see these subjects age more than half-a-century. We watch eyes grow hard and bodies get soft. The walks lose a step or two while youthful belligerence gives way to something more circumspect and considered. It’s a remarkable thing to witness — their transformation over time and both the ravages and unexpected gifts of age. The cumulative emotional impact of the films naturally grows more pronounced with each installment, but especially hits home during this one — which the 78-year-old Apted assumes will probably be his last.
I complained after “56 Up” that the movie was about kind of a boring year, at least relative to the other movies. Everyone had pretty much settled comfortably into middle age by the end of the last one and it didn’t look like there was really all that much difference between being 49 and 56. “63 Up” sees some seismic changes, including a subject diagnosed with cancer just weeks before he’s interviewed, and another who we learn passed away between films. (Apted goes through the regular introduction of old clips before revealing the person’s death, so it lands like a punch to the gut.)
The world, especially England, is also significantly less stable than it was seven years ago. Brexit looms large over the discussions, and we all knew that of course Tony the cockney cabbie would vote “leave.” What’s unexpected is the extent to which he regrets it, vowing that he’ll never vote Tory again and threatening to throw his lot in with the Greens next time. That’s a big part of the appeal of these “Up” pictures, for as much as Almond and Apted originally intended the project to be about that old Jesuit saying and the intractability of character and destiny, people are still capable of surprising us. It’s funny how life works out sometimes.
More predictably, on the wealthier side of the divide folks seem pretty pleased with how things have turned out, commenting on what they consider a more equitable society than the one in which they were raised. But the more we move down the socioeconomic ladder the grimmer the picture gets, with inequality surging and England’s social safety net stripped threadbare, the subject we keep coming back around to is folks learning how to live with less, and lamenting the lack of opportunities for future generations.
But it’s not all grimness and death. My favorite segment finds the headstrong Jackie — an East Ender still as full of moxie as when she was 7 years old — ripping into her interviewer for spending so many years on a stupidly sexist line of questioning. She blasts Apted for always asking the guys serious queries about their careers and politics, while only asking the gals about boys and marriage until well into their adulthoods. “I wondered how long it was going to take for you to get it,” she laughs. Apted laughs too, because he gets it now. All these years, sometimes with them comes wisdom.
“63 Up” opens at Kendall Square Cinema on Friday, Dec. 13.