Movie review: '56 Up' welcome reunion with documentary subjects

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The teenage jockey turned middle-age cabbie had astronaut Buzz Aldrin in his car, but a stranger recognized Tony and wanted his autograph, not that of the man who walked on the moon.

That is proof of just how famous the subjects of a onetime experimental TV series -- and, now, eight documentaries and counting -- are in their native Great Britain. Imagine reality TV stars whose entire lives (almost) have been chronicled thanks to filmmaker Michael Apted, who takes their temperature, so to speak, every seven years.

'56 Up'

3.5 stars = Very Good
Ratings explained

  • Rating:

    No MPAA rating but PG in nature.

His latest, "56 Up," opens Friday at the Harris Theater, Downtown, and it is fascinating, as always, to catch up with the boys and girls who were guinea pigs in a grand experiment.

The idea was to interview 14 children from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds from all over England to see if a class system was in place. Beyond that, though, was a wish to track their dreams, ambitions and fears and to test the Jesuit theory, "Give me the child until he is 7, and I will show you the man."

In some ways that is true but "56 Up" proves that nature or nurture isn't destiny.

Symon, who lived in a children's home as a boy and was considered "illegitimate" in those days, was married and the father of five by age 28. By age 35, he was divorced but by 42, he was remarried with a stepdaughter and another biological child.

He and his second wife trained as foster parents and quit counting when they reached 65 children they had welcomed into their home. "Something all children want is to be loved," says Symon, a forklift driver who might have been an accountant if he had pushed himself or met his second wife earlier.

A man who quit the series after "28 Up," due to the malice and ill will directed at him, has returned. He is happier and acknowledges he wants to promote his band, the Good Intentions (and they're quite good, as it turns out).

A woman who vowed to bow out has resigned herself to sticking with it, comparing it to reading a book. "I'll see it through," she says.

"56 Up" shows you can blossom late in life and rebound, as one woman did, from divorce and being a single mother to two children. She is now an administrator at Queen Mary Law School and quite comfortably addresses an auditorium of 500, has been engaged for the past 14 years and is giving community theater a try.

Asked if she wishes she had gone to college, she says, "Not really. It's the same as anything. Why look back and say I wish I did this, I wish I'd done that? I had a good career, at least I have my own home. ... I'll never be a rich pensioner," she reasons, but if she can keep her house warm and family fed, she'll be fine.

At 56, most of the participants are still in good health although one woman suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and has had more than her share of misfortune. Still, she considers herself a "glass half full" sort of person and is exploring online dating.

Even if the accents and the working-class or privileged backgrounds are foreign, it's instructive and illuminating to watch how real people handle setbacks, joy, second chances at families or careers, the arrival of grandchildren, thoughts about mortality and simply the passage of time.

This may be the last real opportunity for participants to start over. By 63, when the next installment is due, some might be hobbled by health problems or worse, or enjoying a slower pace of life.

Mr. Apted uses archival footage generously and provides capsule backgrounds on each person, so you could jump in at this juncture. Watching these movies is like encountering friends of a friend at a party every so often and catching up.

Even as you learn about their lives, you have to wonder about your own, the mark of a good conversation or moviegoing experience.


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: First Published March 7, 2013 5:00 AM


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