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63 Up (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

63 Up

63 UP (2019)

Featuring Bruce Balden, Jackie Bassett, Symon Basterfield, Andrew Brackfield, John Brisby, Peter Davies, Susan Davis, Nicholas Hitchon, Neil Hughes, Paul Kligerman and Tony Walker.

Narrated by Michael Apted.

Directed by Michael Apted.

Distributed by BritBox. 138 minutes. Not Rated.

I’m not a big one for hyperbole, but Michael Apted’s Up series is one of the finest, most vitally important projects in the history of filmmaking. It is not so much a documentary series as an act of human socio-anthropology, and as critic Roger Ebert once said, “an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium.”

The Up films started in 1963 with Seven Up!, a 40-minute long made-for-TV look at the British class system – visiting and interviewing a bunch of seven-year-old children of all different backgrounds about life in England, their place in the world, their dreams and hope for the future. It was predicated on the old axiom “Show me a child at seven and I can show you the man.”

Apted did not direct that first TV doc (he was the head researcher for it), however it was popular enough that he went back to see those children again seven years later for 7 Plus Seven, documenting how their lives had changed. Ever since then Apted has returned to visit them every seven years – making 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, 49 Up, 56 Up and now 63 Up – and we have seen the breadth of their entire lives; lovers, spouses, children, grandchildren, parents, friendships, jobs, hobbies, homes, pets, aspirations, political beliefs, artistic endeavors, and so much more.

63 Up is the ninth film in the series over a span of 56 years, and while not everyone has been back for every film, a great majority of the kids are still cooperating with the series. (Only one of the children has absolutely refused to do any more after 21 Up, and ironically, he grew up to be a documentary filmmaker.)

Apted has suggested that this may be the last of the series (although he has suggested that in the past as well). After all, the participants are getting old – the first one of them died in 2013 and at least one other is seriously ill in 63 Up – and the director is even older. Apted would be 85 at the time of a prospective 70 Up.

This creeping mortality was something that Apted was concerned about when I interviewed him in 2007. “It’s a very chilling thought, one that I’m sort of in denial about,” he said. “I’m hoping that I go first. I really don’t know how to handle it. It depends on the circumstances. If I knew someone was terminally ill and they weren’t going to make it to the next, would I…? This all sounds really terrible, calculating it. I just don’t know how to deal with it. I suppose it would depend on the person and what they wanted to do…. It’s just a shocking thought…. I’ve known them over 40 years. We are like a family…. Some of us are close. Some of us aren’t close. But that’s an issue that I really dread having to deal with.”

While I pray that the series will be able to continue, if this is the last chapter in this story, it is one hell of a way to go out. And Apted deals with illness and death as best he can, just like in life.

Because 63 Up is life. Life being lived by real people. Love, pain, adjustment, emotions, finances, moving, settling into what life throws at you. In a world where every Kardashian and Real Housewife is clinging to fame through being outrageous, 63 Up shows how real people act.

“It’s always been sort of jokingly said that I invented reality television,” Apted told me in that 2007 interview. “Without being critical of reality television, which I am most of the time – as an idea, reality tends to put people in contrived or unusual circumstances and see how they respond. A documentary attempts… to catch life as it is. To show a reality rather than show how people react in alien circumstances…. There is a difference. Reality lends itself to more exploitation really than a documentary does.”

Well, there is nothing exploitative about 63 Up. It is no early-seniors equivalent of Big Brother. It is just a series of men and women that we have come to know over the decades discussing and living their lives the best that they can. Due to their advanced age, not surprisingly there are fewer dramatic bombshell changes in their lives like which occurred in previous installations.

They are more settled now, dealing with the coming of retirement, health issues, the losing of their parents, and financial concerns – for them and England more generally. Several of them discuss Brexit (both pro and con), the shrinking of government benefits and the problems with housing, and one who lives in America is even asked about Donald Trump. (He diplomatically soft-pedals it with a resigned “Oh, gosh.”)

Still, life is still throwing them curves and they are still wonderfully open and up front about it. While some of them talk about how difficult it is to open themselves up to the world every seven years, they still do it, and even find some solace and closure from the experience.

Not all can, though, Suzy, who has been talking about skipping the filming ritual since 42 Up – before apparently resigning herself to being part of something that is bigger than herself in 56 Up – has decided to not participate in this go-around. However, Peter, who missed several films due to tabloid infamy from his appearance in 28 Up, only to return briefly in 56 Up, talks extensively here, while promoting his band.

Naturally the most tragic part is the death of children’s librarian Lynn, who died suddenly in 2013 after a minor freak accident caused complications to a medical condition which she had talked about in earlier films. There in her stead were her husband and daughters, bravely discussing her life and death. Mortality also suffuses the interview with Nick, who had been diagnosed with possibly terminal cancer just ten days before doing the interview.

However, it is not all sad. Tony is still the same charming and good-natured “cheeky chappie” (as he refers to himself), despite feeling some financial hardships because his taxi business has been severely dented by Uber. Jackie seems happy in retirement despite suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.

It’s also lovely to see Paul and Symon, who were interviewed together in a boys’ home in Seven Up!, are still friends and interviewed together again all these years later, sharing a friendly visit with their families – even though they live on different continents.

Not surprisingly, 63 Up ends with Neil, who has had a much more dramatic history than most – a past that includes homelessness, divorce and depression. In recent films Neil seemed to be getting his life together – becoming a duly elected politician, finding his religious calling, even getting remarried. We find him now still involved in politics and religion, living more simply in a quaint French villa, but he is going through an unhappy divorce and his severe depression seems to be back in force.

Apted asks all of them about the Jesuit quote which inspired the original film. Most do generally agree with it – they see many signs of their future personalities in their seven-year-old self. However, Apted himself points out to Neil that he seems to be the exception to the rule, going from an outgoing, happy, confident child to a haunted and lost soul.

The series’ new focus on mortality may all sound a bit depressing, but it is not, though it is bittersweet to see people who feel like old friends going through these thoughts and challenges. 63 Up is thought-provoking, brave, often quite joyous and always completely human.

There has never been a cinematic undertaking with the depth and breadth of the Up series, and likely there will never be again. If this really is the end of the road, they are going out on a very high note. This is arguably the most important long-term film project in history, and we’ll have to take anything else we get as a bonus. Apted is saying that while it is quite possible that they may never make another film, he will never say never. He’ll see what happens in the next seven years. I guess we’ll find out for sure in 2026.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: December 13, 2019.

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