Michael Apted’s 49 Up continues and possibly concludes the most remarkable chronicle of a slice of humanity in the history of cinema. This is to say that I cannot possibly imagine what more Mr. Apted can glean from people he has known since their childhoods without venturing too deeply into the morbid realms of intimations of mortality. After all, no one has died on him yet, and so, perhaps, he should quit while he’s ahead, as it were.
It all began 42 years ago, in 1964, with a British TV program from Granada Television, a World in Action special directed by Paul Almond and researched by Mr. Apted. A diverse group of 7-year-olds from all over England were interviewed about their lives, hopes and dreams for the future. The series was inspired by the Jesuit maxim, “Give me the child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.” Mr. Apted took over the series from there, and he has dutifully given us seven-year progress reports on the original subjects. His latest entry in the ledger of life, 49 Up, is being released in 2006, after a showing at this year’s New York Film Festival. Mr. Apted was 23 when the first of the programs, Seven Up, was shown; he is now, inexorably, 65.
In the interim, he has managed a prodigiously productive career in mainstream movies along with his continuing involvement in television documentaries, made-for-TV play adaptations and fiction films, and even TV commercials well into the age of cable and DVD. Among his more familiar credits are The Triple Echo (1972), Stardust (1974), Agatha (1979), Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), Gorillas in the Mist (1988), Blink (1994), Nell (1994), The World Is Not Enough (1999), Enigma (2001) and Enough (2002). He has won every award there is, particularly with Coal Miner’s Daughter and Gorillas in the Mist. Like one of his subjects in the Up series, Mr. Apted has moved to America and apparently settled there.
If I seem unusually tentative about Mr. Apted, it is because I, too, have aged 42 years since I first saw Seven Up, which has taken me from 36 to 78, which I don’t like to think about. Curiously, I find that the passage of time and the huge impact of the Up series overall has made Mr. Apted’s standing as an auteur foggier in my mind than ever.
But I am not alone in my indecisiveness. The renowned film historian, David Thomson, normally amply endowed with judgmental certitude, has virtually thrown up his hands over Mr. Apted’s extraordinary productivity, versatility and ubiquity, especially in the following passage from his invaluable and monumental The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: “Apted is not just an Englishman who has made an unusual commitment to American regionalism. He was born eight days before I was, and only fifty miles away—so I try to keep up with him. But since his interests are so varied, and his personality so fleeting, this is no easy task. We have only to note that in 1998, he put together the latest installment in his survey of a group of English lives and the latest James Bond movie with equal fairness, never letting one part of his mind judge the other.”
Over the years, the very consciously contrived class divisions in the Up group have struck me in contrastingly different ways. At 7, all children are supposed to be endearingly cute, but the upper-class boys in Mr. Apted’s study came across as such complacent twits that the lower- and middle-class children seemed much more likeably “natural” and “spontaneous.” But as time went on, in 14 Up and 21 Up, the upper-class kids grew up to become more interesting—and certainly better spoken—than their poorer and less-educated contemporaries.
At the time, I recalled George Orwell’s observation that the lower-class British soldiers in World War I looked 10 years older than their upper-class comrades. But by the time Mr. Apted started his research, several Labor Party governments had improved the school diets of the poorer children. Hence, the physical differences between classes were not as pronounced as the cultural differences.
One has to wonder how much the Up series itself changed the lives of its participants. They mostly turned out fairly well: Most got married at one time or another and had children, though with a strange preponderance of sons over daughters. Most seemed to have moved great distances from where they began, one all the way to Australia and another to America. There were several divorces and remarriages. None of the childhood subjects turned out to be gay. None turned to any form of crime. One or two chose to drop out along the way, though one returned at 49 after having opted out of the two previous sessions.
Still, one cannot imagine media-savvy children of the present time, either in England or the United States, undertaking such an experiment without maneuvering to become big stars—or, better still, big “idols”—in the process. Then too, the criteria for selection would provoke endless debates over alleged ethnic, racial and religious discrimination. And the mere suggestion that we live in a society controlled by class divisions and distinctions would enrage many in both England and America.
In any event, one cannot imagine any filmmaker in England or America with the ability, temperament or sheer endurance to make what amounts to a lifelong commitment to tracking the lives of comparative strangers. Indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone anywhere these days with Mr. Apted’s almost miraculous ability to listen understandingly to angry and aggrieved speakers over the direction that their life’s story is taking.
One wonders also how many of us could bear to hear our words spoken at age 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42 and 49 thrown back at us on the big screen to mock us before the world. Bruce was just 7 when he said he wanted to be a missionary so he could work in Africa and “teach people who are not civilized to be, more or less, good.”
After graduating from Oxford, Bruce did manage to teach in Bangladesh. Indeed, it is interesting how many of the Seven Up children would end up in one form of teaching or another, as if there was an unspoken agreement among them to give something back to the community—in many instances, the East End of London.
The least successful and most pathetic of the Seven Up children was clearly Neil, who seemed happy enough at 7 and 14, but was shown wandering lonely and homeless at 28. One feared the worst for him, but at 42 he was rediscovered—seemingly still penniless—working as a Liberal Democrat councilman in Hackney. He never seems to have married, and we never learn how he managed to survive through all the lean years. For that matter, Mr. Apted has never penetrated the deepest and most fearsome secret of modern times: how much money we make, and how many tokens of material success do we have? We see the external signs of wealth and achievement—houses, furniture, clothes, leisure-time activities, vacations, etc.—but no hard figures on assets and liabilities, income and debts, or inheritances either actual and potential.
In Seven Up, Lynn said she wanted to work in Woolworth’s, but she actually began working in a library at 12, and at 42 Up she was still there after 30 years. In 49 Up, Lynn reports the heartbreaking news that her post as a children’s librarian is soon to be abolished. So even when people devote their lives to helping—in Lynn’s case, with severely handicapped children—the powers-that-be can decree otherwise. On the other hand, even the children who sounded like upper-class twits at 7 revealed powerful charitable impulses as they became older.
One of the most amusingly revelatory episodes involves one of the less-privileged children, who fails to achieve his career goal of becoming a jockey and becomes a cabdriver instead. Along with his cabdriver wife, he manages to make enough money to afford a second home on the Spanish coast, in a community where there is a greater concentration of his fellow Englishmen than can currently be found in his old London East End neighborhood—which like everywhere else, keeps changing amid all the global turmoil.
All in all, 49 Up is a must-see entertainment as well as a wondrous history of the turbulent times we have lived through over the past 42 years. Yet what admittedly began for Mr. Apted as a savage critique of the English class system has gradually evolved into a breath-taking existential epic, which reminds us poetically that we make the journey through life only once, and every moment and memory of it is infinitely precious. I do not know Mr. Apted, but when I hear the sound of his voice gently asking one of his most aggrieved subjects what she wants him to ask her about her life, I recognize in his voice the sound of an artist whose strongest bond with his subject is one of love.
Laurie Collyer’s Sherrybaby, from her own screenplay, has gone the full Sundance route from workshop to the recruiting of a “name” lead, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and from there to catchpenny financing, unobtrusive location shooting in New Jersey, and a limited release to the usual art-film theaters in the usual big cities. What has emerged is a very serviceable and plausible vehicle for one of the most charismatic actresses in the industry—if one can describe independent filmmaking as an industry these days rather than a desperate crapshoot teetering on the edge between very limited success and utter oblivion.
Ms. Collyer described the inspiration for her film thusly: “One of my closest childhood friends went to prison the year I graduated from college. I based the story of Sherrybaby on her life. We used to party together in junior high and high school, and I always looked up to her as someone who didn’t take shit from anybody. I think I became obsessed with her story because in the back of my mind I knew that it could have been me going down that path. Two other kids from my block died in their mid-30’s from heroin; between them was also one little girl left behind.”
Ms. Collyer has dedicated Sherrybaby to “Sue,” her prison-bound, heroin-addicted friend from high school. And Ms. Gyllenhaal has researched the role down to the bleach-and-dye jobs that her character, Sherry Swanson, gets in a vain attempt to adapt successfully to life on parole and regain the love of her little girl, Alexis (Ryan Simpkins), who is now in the loving care of Sherry’s brother Bobby (Brad William Henke) and his possessive wife, Lynette, who has no children of her own and thus has fastened on Alexis as her surrogate child. Sherry has other problems as well, including with her suspicious parole officer Hernandez (Giancarlo Esposito), as well as the sheer impossibility of finding a well-paying job with her prison record. Sherry’s very limited final triumph is her realization that she cannot satisfy her emotional goals all at once, but must take them one step at a time. Even her permanent reunion with Alexis must be deferred until she can provide for her both emotionally and financially.
Ms. Gyllenhaal projects an uninhibited sensuality, yet not without a restraining core of pragmatic intelligence. The light that comes into her eyes as she decides at long last not to be an accomplice in her own destruction is alone worth the price of admission. As an actress, Ms. Gyllenhaal seems to steer clear of any parts that seek to exploit an audience’s weakness for conventionally happy endings. Her films are therefore always worth seeing.