Michael Apted’s ambitious docu project for British Granada TV resumes with “56 Up,” the eighth installment of the skein that began in 1964, focusing on a group of 7-year-olds of lower-class and upper-class backgrounds, then filming them at seven-year intervals. By now, the inclusion of footage from previous “Ups” has spawned an internal stand-alone narrative. Little has changed since “49 Up,” though the global financial crisis has impacted several members of the gang, and one long-absent participant returns to the fold. Of interest to faithful followers and easily accessible to newcomers, the pic is skedded for early January release Stateside.
Curiously, all the 56ers appear pleased with their lot, though some still complain about how Apted portrayed them, and grouse about their obligation to continue participating every seven years out of misplaced loyalty. Peter, who quit the series after “21,” a decision he ascribes to the public antipathy occasioned by his rather mild anti-Thatcher remarks, admits he has mainly come back to plug his successful amateur acoustic band, offering a couple of selections to his new captive audience.
Few express anxiety about old age. Jackie, whose ex-husband and beloved mother-in-law are both stricken with cancer, has found reserves of strength that suggest less a stiff upper lip than a true generosity of spirit. The recession curtailed Tony’s expansive plans for the future, but not his irrepressible energy. Sue, who never attended college, marvels at her job administering an important university program, while children’s librarian Lynn copes, reluctantly, with premature retirement due to budget cuts.
Neil, who finally achieved a fragile degree of economic stability with his barely paid work as a member of the town council and lay preacher in the parish church, finds that new austerity measures have rendered his marginalized lifestyle even more fiscally precarious, if no less fulfilling. Indeed, in many ways, the diffident Neil recalls those kindly, unworldly vicars who abound in 19th-century literature if not in real life.
After the dramatic shock of discovering the gap between how kids envision their adulthood and what choices they must soon make, the small adjustments and compromises associated with Apted’s later entries yield substantially less emotional impact, although familiarity with the characters does not necessarily breed contempt. Nevertheless, certain moments in the film resemble nothing so much as attending a school reunion, being buttonholed by an old acquaintance and shown snapshots of the grandkids. A complacently conservative acceptance sometimes seems to blanket all of “56 Up,” as if maturity entails a serene blessing of the status quo.