A 144-minute documentary is daunting enough, but when the same film is the eighth installment of a long-running series, a whole new set of limitations arise. Thanks to Michael Apted’s knack for storytelling, however, 56 Up is not only brisk but highly accessible. Checking in with the 13 British men and women he first interviewed as seven-year-olds in 1964, the director adds to the project’s already rich legacy and likely gains a few new followers in the process.
Similar to the Paradise Lost trilogy about the West Memphis Three, one need not have seen all or any of the prior Up films to enjoy 56 Up. Though more experience almost certainly yields a greater payoff, each installment assumes no such history as it provides an in-depth look at the present while updating both new and veteran viewers with the subjects’ respective lives. Through these flashbacks, Apted inspires a powerful two-pronged emotional response as the children grow and change over seven-year intervals. With each person, the physical evolution from film to film provides a strong initial hook and encourages personal reflection for the viewer on his or her own transformations. But as the segments advance and additional personal details are revealed, the subjects’ emotional ups and downs push the film beyond mere photo album nostalgia into something far more authentic.
Apart from its ambitious scope, perhaps the most impressive aspect of 56 Up is that it creates the illusion of knowing those involved. By asking his subjects choice questions about family, work, love, and hobbies, Apted makes them appear familiar and, regardless of their life decisions, extremely likable. Never judgmental, he reports their divorces, estranged relationships with children, and financial woes with the same even-handedness as their victories. The result is a diverse portrait of post-WWII British life, respectfully and honestly told by the filmmaker and the subjects themselves.
Crisply edited with archival goodies from earlier Up chapters, 56 Up clips along at a remarkably nimble pace and remains consistently engaging. Further aiding the flow are exceptional shot compositions, unusual for a documentary but which shouldn’t be a surprise coming from an established narrative film director. Apted, whose credits range from Coal Miner’s Daughter and Nell to the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough, has a clear cinematic eye and knows how to keep his revered series fresh. Eschewing the statistics, reenactments, and other crutches on which so many modern non-fiction films rely, his straightforward focus on people is one of immense respect and a wonder to behold.
Not Rated. (Subject matter and the occasional bit of language pushes it to upper PG/lower PG-13 territory.)
56 Up is currently playing at the Fine Arts Theatre on Biltmore Ave.