Tasha Robinson is struck by how Michael Apted's revolutionary documentary series, tracking British children from age 7 to 56, has evolved. As the program has advanced, publicity features more prominently:
Several of them express regret over artistic or political careers that never coalesced, particularly Neil Hughes, a periodically homeless, perpetually desperate-seeming district-council representative who complains that he just wants to be a writer, but that even the documentary series hasn’t sparked interest in his work. (This may come as bad news to interviewee Peter Davies, who returns to the series after skipping the last three films, and openly states that he’s doing it to draw attention to his latest band.)
Part of Apted’s focus on the everyday seems to be an attempt to get at relatable, universal parallels—the similar concerns and the core values of life. … But the piercing scrutiny probably has its own chilling effect, particularly as the rise of reality television has taught a generation the importance of self-mythologizing by staying calm, cautious, and self-aware in front of cameras. And it’s periodically worth wondering whether some of 56 Up’s expressions of contentment and lack of regret are just the subjects playing to the cameras, knowing their life choices will be scrutinized and analyzed, not just in the moment, but by generations of filmgoers to come.
The film misses out on intimacy, which could do more to reveal these people as individuals, for the sake of charting a broader trajectory. This is more social anthropology than psychology. 56 Up isn’t concerned so much with opening up individual lives as it is with showing us how the journey of an ordinary life — or over a dozen ordinary lives — can offer insights into our own, and into society.
And that was far more emphatically the case when the project was started: it was designed as an exploration into the British class system. My view, having watched almost every one, is that the individual stories eventually trumped the sociological ambition of the series. Maybe that has now come full circle, like so many of the lives in the film itself.
Previous Dish on the series here.