Joshua Reviews Michael Apted’s 56 Up [Theatrical Review]

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Coming right on the heels of 2012, one of the best calendar years in the world of non-fiction filmmaking in quite some time, what better way to ring in the new year with one of 2013’s first major releases, the return to Michael Apted’s Up series, 56 Up.

The latest entry in the director’s iconic documentary series, the film has begun making its way around the country (it hit in very limited release on January 4), and it is yet another example of just what type of sociological gem this series has truly become.

Originally released as three one-hour episodes on UK TV, the film version of the piece clocks in at just shy of two and a half hours in length, and while it does inherently feel as though it would work better with even more breathing room, Apted again proves that he is among the greatest documentarian filmmakers working, and easily one of the most underrated.

The series from which Apted truly launched his career, 56 Up proves to be one of the more enthralling entrants into this storied franchise, but not because of Apted as a filmmaker. Aesthetically, this film is your standard, run-of-the-mill documentary. Consisting of simply talking head interviews and various bits of archival footage, the film feels very much like meeting up with old friends. Fans of the series will know the players, but new viewers will feel distinctly cold by how focused the film on their changes.  People like Suzy, a woman who at once denounced marriage only to be one of the more happily married members of the cast, have changed dramatically. Thankfully, Apted gives us the chance to revisit some points about each of these characters, as a segment of the film is truly handed over to each person involved here.

Intellectually, the film attempts to cover just about every topic possible. With as many hands in the narrative kitchen here, everything from the downfall of the global economy, or in the case of Jackie, how the economy has tossed her life into an absolute downward spiral, to the greater overall theme of how this series has impacted their life, it feels as though this film could be a capper to the series. With mortality a definite touching point here, you can’t help but wonder if Apted crafted this film to possibly be the final one with this entire cast. It’s a morbid concept, but everything seems crafted, stylistically and intellectually, as an epilogue to the 56 years we’ve spent with these men and women. Hell, even the star-turned-musician Peter Davies returns here, to chat about his band and how the film changed his life. It’s a really sweet return to these characters.

Stuck in this purgatory between feeling bloated and in need of even more breathing room, Apted’s film is a moving portrait of these people whose lives we have become deeply involved in. Their romances, their plight, their success and their failure, these people have become our friends and while we only get to see them once every seven years, it’s one bit of catching up that is definitively welcome.

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