42 Up (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

42 Up is the latest, and perhaps final, installment in Michael Apted's long-running Up series. When the filmmaker began this project in 1964, he came armed with a simple concept: interview 14 British children, all age seven, representing a wide range of classes and backgrounds. Then, every seven years for the remainder of the century, he would seek out those same 14 people and spend a day catching up with them. Those who have seen the other Up movies will recognize that the series really starts to get interesting with 21 Up, the 1978 entry (the two preceding it are fairly "standard" interview documentaries). Each succeeding segment has grown progressively more engrossing as we see Apted's subjects mature before our eyes. 42 Up represents the best of the movies to date.

Of the 14 original interviewees, 11 continue to cooperate, with three having elected to drop off. Between 35 Up and 42 Up, there has been one defection - Peter, who is curiously not mentioned during the movie, even though Charles and John, who haven't participated in a long time, are accorded screen time. Of the other 11, some seem more reluctant than others to dredge up older memories and recap recent occurrences. Watching 42 Up, you get the sense that if Apted makes a 49 Up, he might lose another participant or two. Then again, several of his subjects would probably stay with the project to their dying day.

The men and women of 42 Up represent a reasonably comprehensive cross-section of British society, although not all of them still live in the United Kingdom. Nick, an engineering professor, has moved to the United States, and Paul resides in Australia (where he emigrated many years ago). Most of the interviewees have been married, several are divorced, and only two don't have children. Nearly everyone in 42 Up has been forced to cope with the loss of their parents. Thankfully, none of them have been faced with more painful deaths (such as spouses or children). A good sampling of the class system and economic spectrum is presented - from the homeless Neil (who is getting his life together after bottoming out around the time of 35 Up) to the comfortably situated Andrew.

As has always been the case, some of the subjects are more interesting than others. Tony, a cab driver who once wanted to be a jockey, is an affable man leading a middle-class lifestyle. He is the most lively of Apted's subjects, and seems to enjoy pouring out the details of his life and marriage, including information about an affair that nearly resulted in a split between his wife and him. Suzy, who has been transformed from a sullen teenager into a self-confident middle-aged wife and mother, is another engaging interviewee. She speaks candidly about how her life has changed and what her children mean to her. Apted catches up with Nick, the professor, on his first visit with his family in the U.K. in five years. The setting gives his segment a sense of poignancy. And quiet Bruce, who in 35 Up was in Bangladesh and had expressed some regrets at never having married, is now a newlywed. Andrew, the only one of the three boarding school kids to have stuck with Apted, is a barrister and his snobbish, upper-class views have been toned down considerably over the years.

There's something incredibly simple yet profound about what Apted has done with this series. It's an amazing achievement - not only is it a sociological masterpiece, but it's a fine example of how real-life drama can often be more compelling than fiction. We feel a kinship with these men and women because, in a very real sense, we have watched them grow up. These days, web cams allow us to enter the homes and lives of a wide variety of individuals, but such short-term, voyeuristic views are only appetizers to the kind of multi-course meal that the Up series offers.

For those who are unable or unwilling to seek out the earlier films (one of which, 14 Up, is almost impossible to locate), or for those who have forgotten the details, Apted helpfully recaps the subjects' lives while intercutting older clips with the new interviews. In that way, we get a strong sense of the passage of time, as well as a better understanding of how each individual has changed over the years. It's possible to be amazed by 42 Up without having seen its predecessors.

One of the reasons the Up movies are so effective is that they prompt each viewer to examine his or her life. It's virtually impossible to watch something like 42 Up without considering how one's own personality and situation have changed in the last seven years. In our minds, we become another of Apted's subjects, answering his questions silently and pondering where the years have gone. In doing this project, Apted has tapped into something deeply-rooted in the human psyche. Watching 42 Up offers a more profound experience than what one normally undergoes while viewing a documentary.

It is ironic that 1999 has seen the release of a pair of Apted films, both of which represent the latest installments in long-running series that began during the early 1960s. Of the two, The World Is Not Enough (the 19th James Bond film), will be seen by a far greater number of people. But, in the long run, 42 Up will be the movie history sees as the more important contribution. Along with its predecessors, this marks one of the most remarkable chronicles ever to be assembled. Regardless of whether Apted does a 49 Up or not, his work on these movies represents something truly unique and special.

42 Up (United States, 1999)

Director: Michael Apted
Cast: 11 of 14 Original Interview Subjects
Cinematography: George Jesse Turner
U.S. Distributor: First Run Features
Ranked #7 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1999
Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 1999-11-17
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1