Seven Can Wait
In The Theory of Psychoanalysis published in 1913, Carl Jung speculated as to how the small world of childhood, with its familiar surroundings and characters, can be a model for the greater world. "The more intensively the family has stamped its character upon the child," wrote Jung, "the more it will tend to see and feel its miniature world again in the bigger world of adult life." This novel idea - that adult impulses and subconscious childhood memories are inextricably bound - may itself have been a subconscious impetus behind Granada Television's decision (in 1963) to mount a documentary series depicting a group of seven-year-old children who represent a cultural cross section of British society. The filmmakers offered to trace their lives and see what happened to them. That film was 7 Up.
A Jesuit motto was used to describe its theme: "Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man." The plan was to interview the seven-year-olds in order to speculate on what lay in store for England as it edged toward the year 2000. The children were chosen by production researchers after consultation with their parents, who agreed to have them participate in the seven-year installments. The black-and-white 7 Up was somewhat pat and simplistic despite the scintillating charge it received from these promising, precocious, hypercombustible kids. The first impression was of a vaguely propagandistic - and initially unsuccessful - effort to sketch a uniform portrait of class society (example: three privileged, upper-class boys and three East-End, working-class girls, were interviewed side by side). Thus, it was hardly surprising that, of the fourteen kids sought by Granada's World in Action team in 1963, only one was black.
Michael Apted, a British director whose feature credits have been successful on both sides of the Atlantic (Coal Miner's Daughter, Continental Divide, Gorillas in the Mist), was a researcher for 7 Up, then director for 7 + 7, 21, 28 Up, and now the latest installment, 35 Up. Rapturously received in England, the series remains an important achievement, for despite any shortcomings, the Up films cumulatively convey the rigidity of class lines in Britain, but ultimately the films are more than a study of class. What 35 Up really shows us is the human dimension of time, particularly the physical decline, intellectual frustration, and emotional defeat possible in life. There's a melancholy intimation of mortality, and most of all, a naked look at missed opportunities and failed dreams. It's a heartbreaking testimonial.
Apted has edited 35 Up in a comprehensive, all-inclusive manner, making any knowledge of the previous films useful but not necessary. We reobserve the progress that has brought these boys and girls to 35: their childish insouciance at seven, their adolescent self-consciousness at fourteen (when many find looking directly at the camera difficult), a burgeoning adult anxiety at 21, and finally stirrings of resignation upon hitting 28. When 28 Up was released in 1985, the entire country of England, it seems, was appalled and moved by the lonely figure of Neil (~no last names given), a Liverpudlian who was one of the most charismatic and outspoken of the children - he was later crushed that he didn't make it into Oxford University - when he emerges suddenly homeless and ambling aimlessly near a Scottish loch. Letters poured in asking about Neil and trying to find ways to help out; he was even offered a place at Cambridge. (One of the series' persistent, unspoken questions is, "How can this happen?")
The new film enhances the previous impression of impending closure. The second participant we revisit is Tony - hands-down the most ebullient child of 7 Up - and the effect is devastating. Tony's dream was to be a jockey; instead he ends up driving a black cab in London, married to a child-bearing, Cockney lump of a wife who also drives a cab and openly talks onscreen about his infidelities and the possibility of their splitting up before the next film. How upsetting it is to watch someone crushed by circumstance who still manages a smile in order to conceal his pain - the implications are unbearable. At 35 Tony has seen his dreams evanesce, yet still he fancies himself a star: he mentions enthusiastically an appearance - as an extra - in a Steven Spielberg movie. Tony is a bigger loser than Willy Loman, but when he recalls, eyes welling up with tears, the death of his mother, the power of his grief (a universal condition), added to the already poignant optimism he displays in facing up to his failures, it is more moving than a critic's words could ever convey.
Such moments are peppered throughout 35 Up, but there's a single exception where the aging process emerges as a step toward a sense of fulfillent. Suzanne, the upper-middle-class daughter of a Scottish stockbroker who was the most awkward and mannered of the children in 7 Up, is later filmed in a turbulent, depressed-adolescent stage, and she remains eerily cool and detached through her twenties. However, at 35, stable, married, with children, and living in the country, she finally allows some warmth to come through. Suzanne is perhaps the only good news here - it's made clear, however, that her financial worries are few.
The most startling aspect about 35 Up is the extent to which age is shown to diminish the body - especially how each line, shape, and contour of the face is either coarsened and distorted. (It suggests England as the last place on earth you go to find glamour.) It's there in Jackie, Lynn, and Susan, the trio of East-End girls - they're as frumpy and overweight as Roseanne Arnold. The temptation to perceive in their physical ungainliness a further sign of dread is mitigated by their remarkable dignity in the face of mediocrity. Two of their mothers have passed away since 28 Up, and Lynn herself is ill with a possibly life-threatening disease. Living out their lives, they intuitively understand and accept their lot - of course it's not the stuff of long-ago, childhood dreams. Here's a uniquely English, get-on-with-it perseverance that in some ways adds to their apparent solidity and humanity. It's a cautious sign of hope.
35 Up ends with Neil, whose presence is, if anything, more disturbing than before. Indeed it's hard to look at what's become of the cheeky boy who said at seven, "If I can't be an astronaut, I think I'll be a coach driver," and who at 21 looked toward politics. That year he saw himself reaching 28 with realized ambitions: "In a job from which I would be getting satisfaction. Married, probably, with children, with a good salary - enough to, as I said before, be able to live fairly comfortably."
None of it came to pass: By 28 Neil was homeless, a Social Security recipient bleakly walking the peaks and valleys of Scotland, wearing a drab, scarecrow suit and speaking to himself. (It's not clear whether or not he's schizophrenic.) But at 35 he's more settled and living in the Shetland Islands, pleased about acting in a 1990 pantomime, and answering difficult questions from the ever-insistent interlocutor, Apted, such as whether he worries about madness. There is a semblance of stability in Neil's existence now, but oh, the sadness of it - it's another wasted life witnessed in the clear light of day. The very idea of meeting Neil again seven years from now is as ineluctably terrifying as it is inevitable.
In 28 Up Neil says something that's as profoundly resonant as a valedictory pronouncement and speaks to and about this class of time-marching Britons, whose familiar identities remain distinct but also form part of a larger tragedy. That the words come from its most disenfranchised member is all the more affecting: "No formal education can prepare anybody for life," Neil reflects. "Only life can prepare you for what comes."
Directed by Michael Apted.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.