Culture | A popular portrait

Michael Apted's 56 Up

The premise of 56 Up, while being of great interest to me, was cause for some concern heading into Cinema du Parc. The documentary is made up of a series of instalments that chronicle the lives of 14 British individuals at seven-year intervals, and I worried whether the value of the film might be a little lost on one who hadn’t seen the previous instalments. My apprehensions, however, were soon put to rest, for if nothing else, 56 Up is a wonderful composite of stories, a project that allows us to understand how people change, grow, and ultimately shape their lives in ways that are particular to each of us. The scope and intimacy of the project result in a moving portrayal of human life that is more true to form than most fictional stories ever could be. It is this main tenet on which the strength of the movie lies.

Fourteen lives can contain a plethora of information and experiences, and any filmmaker would tell you that squeezing a detailed portrayal of that many lives into the movie’s 150-minute run time involves cutting a great deal of material for the finished product. Indeed, this is a primary complaint for several of the volunteer subjects, such as John Brisby, who feels that the series’ original goal – to track the influences of Britain’s class system on its subjects – reduces the characters to overarching stereotypes. In a frank interview with Michael Apted, the director and narrator of the project, Brisby explains that while he was portrayed as coming from the “privileged upper class,” the death of his father when he was nine years old, and the subsequent work he had to put in to attend Oxford on a scholarship, was largely ignored. Others, such as Peter Davies, have taken long sabbaticals from appearing in the series. In fact, Davies’ reason for returning after 28 years was largely economical, not sentimental: he appears to promote his country-influenced band, The Good Intentions.

Despite these reactions, the film is largely successful at establishing a basic identity for each of its subjects, with some of these investigations leading to powerful and poignant expressions of character. Jackie Bassett, one of only four women profiled, talks at length about the deaths of many of her close family members, as well as her battle with rheumatoid arthritis. Bassett, who until the time of filming had been living off of disability benefits and contributions from her sons, had just received notice that she was no longer eligible for these allowances. Bemoaning her physical condition, she issues a direct challenge to the federal government: “If Mark Hoban (the UK’s Minister of Employment) can come down here and find me a job that I can do, I will do it.”

Most compelling of all is the story of Neil Hughes, a Liverpool boy who was homeless during the 21 Up and 28 Up installments and who finally became a District Councillor thanks in part to emotional and financial support from Bruce Balden, another subject in the film. It is with Hughes’ character that the constant flashbacks to previous films are most justified. Apted traces Hughes’ evolution from a homeless man struggling with mental health issues to a successful local politician. It is the kind of experience that most people will never get to see up close, and the nuances of his complex character are fascinating to behold. At one point, he explains his decision to abstain from parenthood: “No matter how sweet and caring the mother may be, the child will have to inherit something from me, and that is not fair to it.”

In short, if you are interested in exploring the human experience in any shape or form, go see this movie. It is an expression of life, the existential impact of which will reverberate in the memories of those who see it for years to come.


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