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On Movies: '56 Up' continues life stories of 14 'everymen'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 15, 2013 - Film director Michael Apted ("Coal Miner's Daughter," "Gorillas in the Mist") began his distinguished career in 1964 as a researcher for a British television documentary called "Seven UP." In a sense, he's still working on it.

The idea of "Seven UP," inspired in part by the Jesuit educational maxim "Give me the child until he is 7 and I will give you the man," was to interview 14 seven-year-old boys and girls from different socio-economic backgrounds and different parts of the country to determine if the ancient British class system was still in place. The answer, of course, was "of course," but by interviewing the children about their lives, their likes and dislikes, their dreams and aspirations, the filmmakers came up with a dandy little portrait of the as-yet ill-defined Baby Boom generation barely out of its infancy.

The producers decided to continue the project by checking in with the 14 children every seven years for a new episode -- "7 Plus Seven," "21 UP," "28 UP," and so forth. Apted became the director, and seven episodes later cowlicks have turned into bald spots, baby fat has morphed into middle-aged bulges, and we have "56 UP."

The series is now shown in theaters in the United States, and the new film catches up with 13 of the original 14 subjects -- one has dropped out to become a documentary filmmaker on his own. As with the earlier films, Apted mixes the new footage with segments from the other episodes. Occasionally he will juxtapose ironic contradictions -- we see Suzy as a girl saying "I don't like babies," then Suzy as a young woman lovingly cradling her newborn.

But Apted's attitude toward his subjects is generally kind and slightly avuncular (he's now in his 70s), and since he has been the principal interviewer through almost all of the series, a casual and, at times, confessional tone prevails. There is none of the startling cruelty that seems to be such a staple of reality TV, and there is little sense that any of the participants is acting or showing-off. And that includes Peter, who has returned to the project after dropping out for several episodes because, as he openly admits, he wants to publicize the folk-rock trio he has formed. You also get the idea Peter kind of missed his periodic soul-searching conversations with Michael Apted.

In general, social and economic status for these people seems not to have changed that much over the years. The rich are, on the whole, still rich, despite the economic crisis, and the poor are, on the whole, struggling to get by and hurt by economic belt-tightening.

In "Seven UP," several clearly upper class boys said that they wanted -- indeed, expected -- to attend Cambridge or Oxford. They did, and they continue to prosper. Several men and women who grew up without money and managed to make some lost their savings in the current recession. One woman who grew up in the slums of London's East End, now a widow and a grandmother, has crippled hands from rheumatoid arthritis, and has just been cut off disability payments and told to get a job. She exclaims, "If (Prime Minister) David Cameron can find me a job, I'll take it!"

One middle-class boy, Neil, dropped out of college and, for a decade or more, was a homeless wanderer. He now lives in a trailer in the north of England and has scraped together a living as a paid member of the local governing council. Unlike most of the subjects, he has never married. (Second marriages seem to be the rule.)

These are, in a sense, ordinary people who have led ordinary lives. No movie stars, no astronauts, no prime ministers. But "56 UP," perhaps more than its predecessors because it encompasses so many stages of life, is a fascinating movie because it seems so real, so undeniable, so human, a sense that is reinforced by Apted's skill at moving through the years to show his subjects as they are, and were, and, in a sense, will be. Or rather, as he sees them to be, in his artistic vision.

Nick, who said at 7 that he was going to go to Oxford, and did, makes an interesting observation near the end of "56 UP." In watching the earlier films, he says, he doesn't necessarily recognize himself, but he recognizes a human being.

"It's not an absolute accurate picture of me," he says, "but it's a picture of someone. And that's the value of it."

Taken together, Nick says, the portraits in the "Seven UP" series are "a picture of Everyman."

Opens Friday Feb. 15