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'56 Up' has most subjects finding their way

| Thursday, March 7, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
ITV Studios
Jacqueline Bassett, Lynn Johnson and Susan Sullivan at 7 years old in 1964, in '56 Up.' ITV Studios

If you visit a person with a documentary crew for seven days every seven years, can you produce a full-length portrait of that individual? Or is the result inevitably stripped of its gnarly human complexity, a cartoon, a caricature?

The landmark “7 Up” documentary, launched on British TV in 1964, was not created to solve that riddle. It was intended as a single edition, profiling a dozen or so 7-year-olds from varying economic backgrounds. But when the show's director, Michael Apted, decided to revisit his subjects every seventh year afterward, the issue inevitably arose.

In the eighth installment, “56 Up,” one of the stars addresses the series' snapshot nature head-on. Nick, a bright farm boy who became an Oxford-trained physicist, says it's not an accurate representation of him, personally, but an intriguing survey of the aging process generally. “It's a picture of Everyman,” he says.

The “7 Up” followups began from a heavy-handed biography-is-destiny premise. The kids were presented as inhabitants of a Dickensian universe of unbridgeable social barriers, and the young subjects themselves tended to reinforce the idea. Little Lynn from London's East End had no ambitions beyond working at Woolworth's; John, a wellborn half-pint, smugly announced that he read the Financial Times.

As we've gotten to know them over the years, however, their characters have grown too rich to be pigeonholed. Fans have sighed and fretted over their fates, and now we can rest easier. Things appear to be working out all right for almost everyone. Neal, a lively golden child at 7, moved through a troubled adolescence, years of homelessness and seemed to be headed for an unhappy hermit's end. Miraculously, he has reconnected to the world through his church and small-town politics.

Although Jackie, hit by unemployment and ill health, struggles to find hope, most of her fellow subjects have made a comfortable, dignified peace. Symon, a mixed-race child who never knew his father, has become a foster parent to more than 60 vulnerable children. Tony, an ebullient would-be-jockey-turned-London cabdriver, lives with his sprawling family in sunny Spain. Sue, though unable to afford higher education, has become a successful university administrator. John, a fox-hunting dandy at 21, balances his successful legal career with philanthropy.

Others have married, divorced, remarried and found contentment. After almost 50 years together, almost every individual is candid and forthcoming; only one has made what appears to be a definitive break with the program. Watching “56 Up” gives you the wonderful feeling of seeing a sociological experiment blossom into something novelistically rich and humane. It's not clear how long director Apted, 71, will continue with the project, but after a relentlessly productive career spanning a Bond film, a Narnia film and “Gorillas in the Mist,” the “Up” films are the finest epitaph he could hope for.

Colin Covert is a movie writer for the Star Tribune (Minneapolis).

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