Eight films and 49 years into Michael Apted’s sui generis Up series, considering a single film in isolation feels like reviewing Anna Karenina, chapter 12. As always, Apted succinctly takes us through the lives of his 13 subjects (the 14th, Charles, dropped out after 21 Up) in seven-year intervals before working his way up to the present day, but it’s no substitute for taking in the series in its entirety: a collective, if unfinished, masterwork. Of course, the parts Apted leaves out tell their own stories of once-cataclysmic events that have since receded into the background: divorces eclipsed by second marriages; childhood dreams traded for less-ambitious reality.
Few conflicts have surfaced in the years since 49 Up. But where at that age many of the series’ subjects seemed to be just settling into their bliss, now they’re committed to it, and the foreclosed possibilities that come alongside. The class divides that Seven Up! was created to explore have certainly made themselves clear in the long(-ish) run: The students from working-class backgrounds work in manual labor or administration; upper-crust Andrew and John are both lawyers, albeit with very different lives. But personality traits have had even a more pronounced effect: Shy Paul works as a handyman in a retirement village, while charismatic Tony, a high-school dropout, has parlayed a career driving a taxi into numerous, though not always successful, ventures.
Perhaps the greatest change over the course of the Up series is its subjects’ awareness, and often resentment, of what it means to participate. Peter dropped out after left-wing comments in 28 Up earned him a scolding from the conservative press; he’s back now, but mostly because he has a band to promote. In a memorable exchange, Nick, now an American college professor, and Suzy, a bereavement counselor, join forces to criticize their reductive presentation. But even Nick eventually concedes: It may not be an accurate portrait of him as an individual, but it captures what it means for a person — any person, more than any single one — to age.