Richard Linklater’s recently declared plan to shoot a movie version of “Merrily We Roll Along” over a 20-year period, much like he shot “Boyhood” over 12 years, is being rightly hailed for its chutzpah. But he’s still got nothing on Michael Apted, who has essentially been directing the same movie since 1964, a record for ambition in filmmaking continuity that no one’s likely to break in any of our lifetimes. The latest installment in Apted’s ongoing documentary narrative is “63 Up,” ninth in a series that began with “Seven Up!” and has proceeded like clockwork in following the same group of British subjects every seven years. If this is the final chapter, as Apted suggests it could be, it’s a worthy cap to one of the boldest experiments in world cinema.
The producers never had any plans for a sequel, much less eight, when “Seven Up!” premiered on ITV in England 55 years ago and unexpectedly became such a national sensation that regular follow-up appointments were deemed required. At the time, Apted enchanted viewers with footage of 14 pretty much uniformly adorable kids who were going to be filmed just going about their daily business. Somewhere between subtext and blatant theme was the idea that England’s class system determines children’s futures at least as much as biological destiny. In 2019, moppetry has given way to meditations on mortality, as the participants deal with parental losses and consider the time limit on their own lives, if not the series.
With “63 Up,” the filmmakers has finally had to deal with a death in the family. We come to find that the school librarian Lynn (all the “kids” have always been identified by name only) passed away a few years ago after being hit in the head by a swing at a playground with her grandchildren, exacerbating a preexisting condition she’s seen discussing as a danger in a flashback from an earlier film. Viewer grief is in order for a woman who’d come off previously as a strong advocate on the subject of governmental cutbacks in social services, especially after having lost her job helping children in the prior installment.
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Meanwhile, Nick tells the camera that he’d been diagnosed with throat cancer just 10 days before filming and, clearly shaken, is dealing with “all the stuff we repress as hard as we can.” Nearly everyone has lost one or both parents, which leaves the otherwise sanguine Peter pointing out cheerfully that he’s “next in the firing line.” The film is full of talk of pulmonary embolisms and hemorrhages as well as heartbreak.
The less noble way of looking at the “Up” series is to see it as Britain’s longest running soap opera, but Apted (who took researcher credit on the first film and officially took over as director with 1970’s “7 Plus Seven”) has been nothing but dogged in trying to maintain a strong sociopolitical component in all the films, even if that can feel shoehorned in at times as an addendum to the domestic catching up everyone is tuning in for. Brexit has provided the filmmaker with a more convenient than usual way of getting at that stuff in this installment, as he asks each of the now 12 participants their thoughts. The predictability of those does serve the purpose of further establishing a key Apted point, that class as well as biology is destiny — although no one was still unabashedly pro-Brexit by the time of filming.
It’s not all end-is-nigh gloom — at least not personally, even though no one seems to hold high hopes for the state of Britain itself. The most youthful looking of this gray-haired lot, Peter, is using the occasion of his 60s to … start a band! Peter explains he’d skipped three of the prior films because the “tabloid press” had been determined to “portray me as an angry young rad in Thatcher’s England.” That some of these subjects talk about how they were celebrated or stereotyped in the mass media may not seem foreign to Americans who are used to that now with reality-show contestants, but the idea that this lot has been dealing with it for 56 years is staggering. That the “Up” series has kept the participation rate it has is a testament to Apted’s ease with his subjects — this round, they have 11 out of 14, with Lynn lost to death and only Suzy finally deciding to join Charles in opting out, for reasons unknown.
Not all 11 stories are going to be of equal interest, and you might uncharitably wish that a few more of them had voluntarily Brexit-ed from the series, to alleviate the 139-minute running time (cut down from the three-hour version ITV aired in the U.K. back in June). But the film does save the best for last, in the form of the troubled but resilient Neil. He’s long seemed the most at-risk of the series, having been a squatter or homeless in some installments. Neil eventually found vocational purpose in his life as a Liberal Democrat councilor and lay minister, but in 2019, his partner has dumped him and he’s openly depressed. His anxiety in the closing segment is quite the contrast to lorry driver Tony describing himself as an eternally “cheeky chappie” in the opening.
Neil sort of ends the movie on a cliffhanger; it’s unclear whether his story might yet have a happy ending, to the extent that any mortal life does, or whether his open vulnerability might yet get the best of him. While everyone else in the film pretty much agrees with the original “Seven Up!” motto — “Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man” — Neil provides proof that some men’s personalities are still being written at 63. He, frankly, is the reason we need a “70 Up.” Will we get it? At the film’s Telluride premiere, Apted said he was comfortable with this being the swan song, then, perhaps sensing disappointment added, “Whether we make another one, if we’re all above ground, it’s all fluid.”