Starting as a one-off TV special, the UP documentary series transformed into an amazing sociological study and film achievement, thanks to director Michael Apted, who has been on the series from the beginning and has helmed it since 7 PLUS SEVEN. Watching a group of British citizens from various walks of life since they age of seven, the series chronicles the ups and downs of living like no other. For this installment, we aren’t seeing the radical personality shifts that we saw in earlier editions, but change is still evident. In many ways, this installment is the most melancholy thus far.
For this chapter, two more subjects dropped away and one other returns. We don’t get an update on Peter, who at 28, seemed dissatisfied with his job as a teacher and his marriage, dreaming of the days when he played in a band. We also don’t see Simon, the only mixed race participant, who at 28, was content with having a stable job at a meat packing plant, which provided for his family. Charles, who was a producer at 28 and did not participate in the previous film, declined again.
Like 28 UP, this installment begins with Tony, the kid from the East End of London, who wanted to grow up to be a jockey. At 35, he’s made a comfortable life for him and his family as a cabbie. His views on marriage and relationships are bluntly honest and telling. He’s proud that everything he has ever wanted to attempt he has at least had a chance to do. He rode in three horse races, acted as an extra and opened a bar, which has since gone under. Apted challenges him that he really hasn’t succeeded at any of them and his reply is that it’s better to be a has been than a never was.
Bruce, who at seven wanted to be a missionary and at 14 thought he wasn’t good enough to be one, is now in Bangladesh teaching children. He still seems awkward and nerdish, but far more aware of this fact. Suzy, who was emotional shaken by the collapse of her parents’ marriage at 14 and 21, is now living a comfortable, upper-class life with her husband and children. Nick, who is still teaching at the University of Wisconsin, can’t understand what the 28-year-old version of himself was thinking when he and his new wife wondered if they would make it. More so than ever, the distance away from his family in England is saddening to him. Paul is still living in Australia, where he is still struggling with insecurity, but he has made a breakthrough in his personal life. Apted uses a brilliant juxtaposition of him with his family and him building a house at seven.
In the first film, some of the children were filmed in groups. The pre-prep students were Charles, John and Andrew. After bowing out of the previous film, John, a successful barrister, returned to the series, even if slightly begrudgingly. He’s now married and along with his wife Claire dedicates time to charities that help the country of Bulgaria, where his ancestors came from. Claire’s father was the ambassador to the country. He says that the film series is like a poison pill he has to take every seven years and that the only reason he returned was to promote his pet causes. Andrew, a successful solicitor, is the participant whose life seems the most planned out. He went to the school he said he would at seven and the college he said he would at 14 and his profession is as he said it would be at 21. At 28, he said he and his wife wanted to raise their family in the country and that is now what they are going. While he and John came from very similar backgrounds, he is more progressive, while John is staunchly conservative.
The other group we have come to know is Jackie, Lynn and Susan, the friends from the working-class neighborhood. All were married in the last film, but now Jackie and Susan are divorced. Jackie has done something she said she never would do and it seems to have brought her great joy. Susan is dedicated to her kids and goes out with other divorcees. When it comes to divorce, they are all thankful that they had the option to leave a bad relationship unlike their mothers who would have never dreamed of it. Lynn is content in her marriage, but frustrated with politics that have changed the educational system that she holds so dear.
Apted chooses to end with Neil, a saddest chase in the series. At seven, he was energetic and bright. By 14 that was all gone and it was shocking. By 21, he was living a squatter’s life and we learned that he was battling mental illness. At 28, he had lost some of the anger he had in his early 20s and began patching up his strained relationship with his parents, but at 35, he doesn’t seem much better off, looking even more haggard. He lives off the state and sees no hope in his future. He participates in a local theater company just to feel something. His greatest fear for the future is that he turns into one of the homeless, aimlessly wandering the streets of London. That fear is real and we feel it.
It seems so right to end on the sad tale of Neil. This installment chronicled a lot of sadness in the lives of the participants. Divorce, death of parents and unfulfilled dreams played across stories. Unlike Andrew, all the other participants’ lives have not turned out like they imagined at seven. Some have not been negative, but surprises came nonetheless. Through all the trials and tribulations, one thing has stayed the same you can still see their seven-year-old selves in them, even in Neil, even if it’s buried under the burden of life’s sometimes cruel irony.
THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY (2012) (***1/2)