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Review: Shadows lengthen and fascination continues as engrossing “Up” series reaches age 56

Peter (with his band) at the age of 56 in Michael Apted's "56 Up!"
Michael Apted's "56 Up!"
Peter (with his band) at age 56 in Michael Apted’s “56 Up.”

Years lengthen, hair recedes, waistlines spread, and the “Seven Up!” saga abides. “56 Up,” the eighth installment of this extraordinary documentary series-slash-social experiment, finds many of its middle-aged British subjects dealing with not-empty-nest syndrome. Their grown children still live at home, due to the economic downturn. Meanwhile, they face their own parents’ decline as death quietly edges closer to center-frame.

If you’ve seen more than one installment of the “Up” series, you know it’s unique in the ways it was created and has been updated every seven years. It’s equally singular in its power to provoke a subjective, ever-changing, very personal response as you watch, comparing and contrasting your own life and aging to those of the people onscreen. With whiplash speed, these films can go from inspirational to downer.

In case you’re a newcomer (the current film will bring you up to speed, so don’t be shy if you are), it began in 1964 when a British TV crew decided to interview 14 seven-year-olds. Their thesis was the Jesuit motto “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”

Choosing an economically diverse mixture of moneyed boarding-school children and tykes from the tougher ends of London, the crew, led by then-director Paul Almond, quizzed the kids about their dream jobs, which ranged from jockey to Woolworth’s shop girl to member of Parliament. The implicit question was, which among these children would be able to realize their dreams? In other words, we’re looking at a nature-nurture question, the idea being that the parenting, social and class influences that had already been exerted on the children might determine their entire lives.

Yes or no? Well, yes, and absolutely not. On the cusp of Carnaby Street and the Beatles, the famously rigid British class system was already starting to fragment in the early 1960s. True, as they age through their adult careers, working-class best pals Jackie, Sue and Lynn don’t stray very far from their blue-collar roots. But one of them, without a degree herself, becomes an administrator at the heart of a London law school. Tony, the kid who dreamed of being a jockey, became just that, for a while, anyway. And Andrew and John, the stiff-upper-lipped toffs who declare, at age seven, their intended schools and careers in law and politics, follow their trajectories to a degree … but they’re far from the ghastly caricatures the first film seems to hope they’ll become.

The Jesuit prediction can go only so far. Men and women are shaped by their early molds, for sure. But we’re just naturally too hectic, self-willed and unpredictable to be entirely compartmentalized.

As diverse as they are, the 13 people here (the 14th, Charles Furneaux, dropped out years ago to become a documentary filmmaker himself) share a common trait: a love-hate relationship toward these films and the way their lives are depicted by them.

“I’m not the only participant who wants to set the record straight,” says Neil, the one-time homeless man who found work in politics and the church, who thinks the snippets of his life seen in the “Up” films have provoked “wildly skewed” perceptions of him from people he’s never met. “You don’t get a very rounded picture,” echoes Suzy, the posh girl, in a segment she shares with Nick, the farm boy turned scientist. It would take months, she says, to really depict each of them properly.

Maybe. But that raises a bigger question: no matter how much time we devote to it, how thoroughly can we understand the true essence of another person? Even though we spend every waking and sleeping moment with ourselves, even our own “true” nature can prove elusive.

Director Michael Apted, known for features including “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Gorillas in the Mist,” was an assistant on “Seven Up!” but took over the project after that first installment. He’s an avuncular off-screen presence here, quietly asking these people he has known almost their entire lives some personal questions. He seems more willing than ever to let them grouse about this sociological project they were drafted into while barely out of their nappies.

If he has chosen to relax the rules by letting his subjects challenge the nature of the game, he has also conceded in other amusing ways. He lets Neil use some onscreen time to promote his writing, in pursuit of a publisher. And Neil’s childhood friend Peter, who sat out the last 21 years of filming, reappears primarily to get publicity for his Americana-style band, Good Intentions. Well, good for them — even if, for a moment, Peter and his band-member wife threaten to turn into a Christopher Guest sketch along the lines of “A Mighty Wind.”

By necessity, “56 Up” is long, a little repetitive, and yet, as always, engrossing. If you’ve never seen any of these documentaries, give it a try. If you’re a longtime viewer, prepare to say hello to some old friends. Just don’t say anything mean about the extra pounds and the wrinkles.

“56 Up.” A documentary by Michael Apted, including footage directed by Paul Almond. Unrated. 144 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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