The seventh installment in Michael Apted's ever-evolving masterpiece, "49 Up" is a buoyant surprise that, perhaps contrary to its initial assumptions, has in the long run defied more expectations than it has confirmed. Richer and more textured than its predecessors (each chapter includes interviews with the participants from every stage in the process), and more likely to inspire bouts of entirely defensible sentimentality (some reversals are nothing short of remarkable), "49 Up" is more than a deeply satisfying movie; it's a reminder of the wonder contained in ordinary lives.
A project begun 42 years ago for BBC Films by the British television company Granada Films, where Apted was a researcher, the series was inspired by the Jesuit maxim, "Give me a child until he is 7 and I will give you the man." After the latest update, the Jesuits might want to rethink the saying.
In the original program, "7 Up," 14 7-year-old British kids from different backgrounds were randomly selected and asked to share their views on love, family, money, education, class and their hopes for the future. The results were predictably hilarious. (Charles, an upper-class boy at a private preparatory school, famously explained that it was right for schools to cost money or else "the poor would come rushing in.") Also crystal clear was the film's not-so-sly class-related agenda. The two boys growing up in group homes, and probably the farmer's son, would come up against the limitations of their birth at some point. The girls, regardless of class, would grow up, get married and have babies.
In fact, the three upper-class boys did -- apparently breezily -- fulfill their dreams of attending Oxford and Cambridge and going into law; and after a brief bout of cynicism following her parents' divorce, the well-heeled Suzy snaps into a happy marriage with a suitably rich husband.
Otherwise, for the rest, life has more closely resembled a journey of discovery. Mischievous East Ender turned London cabby Tony, who dreamed of becoming a jockey, rebounds from what looks like the end of his marriage at age 42 and emerges as an energetic retiree in Spain, re-bonded to his wife and giddily surrounded by grandchildren ("It's like an obsession of love," he says, explaining how the feeling differs from that of having children). Farmer's son Nick becomes a physicist and professor in Wisconsin but carries a sense of loss for his faraway roots that surprises him still and is echoed in his happy second marriage to a professor at the University of Minneapolis who lives five hours away.
As though confirming more recent views on the nature-nurture debate, the film quite incidentally raises issues of personality. Simon, who grew up in a group home, struggles with ongoing depression but survives it with the help of a loyal, cheerful wife. Neil, who grew up middle class with two parents in a suburb of Liverpool, struggles with it too, and is all but done in.
Jackie, the chubby East End girl who confronted Apted at 21 for suggesting she was too young to get married (she later divorced, remarried and divorced again), confronts Apted a second time for focusing on her illness (rheumatoid arthritis) in the last installment. When the director asks what she'd rather he focus on, she says she wishes he'd ask her what she still hopes to do.
The subjects' across-the-board staunch hope and constant desire for transformation is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film. From the solicitor to the cabby to the once-homeless drifter, the participants display an astonishing capacity for change. After decades of work, strife, disillusionment and adjusted expectations, all of them (including, presumably, the two who dropped out, now documentary filmmakers) have found their happy endings; the more modest and hard-won, the more poignant. Neil, who began life as a bright, spirited, confident middle-class boy and drifted into homelessness and psychological turmoil, finds peace and contentment late in life as a Liberal Democrat councilor. His success, in part, is owed to the help of another subject, Bruce, the public schoolboy who dreamed of going to Africa to help people.
Nearly half a century since its inception, Apted's sociological look at England has evolved into a stunningly comprehensive document of life in the late 20th century and at the turn of the millennium. "49 Up" is more than a film. It's an affirmation of life that feels like a gift.
MPAA rating: Unrated
A First Run Features release. Director Michael Apted. Producers Apted, Claire Lewis. Director of photography George Jesse Turner. Editor Kim Horton. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
At Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.