``49 Up" marks the latest chapter in one of the most ambitious documentary projects in movie history. Make that the history of any medium, for how often do we get to witness a time-lapse study of human life?
The British men and women who were interviewed as 7-year-olds in 1963, and to whom director Michael Apted (a BBC researcher on the first installment) has returned every seven years, are 49 now. Bald spots and bellies have broadened, wrinkles and wisdom have made inroads. Grandchildren are popping up along with second marriages. In general, the flesh is sagging but the spirits are, surprisingly, more at peace than in ``35 Up" or ``42 Up." The new film marks a period of serene reassessment between the struggles of early adulthood and the onset of old age.
Tony, the East End kid who became a cabbie when his jockey career didn't pan out, is still married to Debbie and their union is more solid than ever (now that he's no longer playing the field). Bruce, the Oxford grad whose life mission was to teach children in Bangladesh and London's poorer neighborhoods, has retreated to an upper-class public school, a victim of burnout. Nick, the farmer's son who became a physicist in America, has encountered career setbacks while finding new love with second wife Kris.
And what of Neil, the series' unofficial star, who moved from inquisitive childhood to homelessness and mental illness at 35? At 49, he's in Cumbria, in the northwest of England, living a frugal life as a local councilman and a licensed minister. Like the others, he's starting to look oldish, and like the others he's beginning to dwell on the long view. There is stock-taking in ``49 Up," and it includes the very film in which the subjects are taking part.
``Every seven years, a little pill of poison" is how Charles, an upper-class barrister, describes the project he never volunteered for. Some of the original 12 participants have dropped out over the years; Charles is one who has returned, if only to draw attention to his charity for Bulgarian schools. Nick makes no secret of his dislike of Apted and, in the film's most welcome and telling sequence, the tough-as-nails Jackie lets the director have it right in the class bias.
``You edit our problems as you see fit," she insists. ``I have no control over it. This may be the first one that's about us rather than your perception of us." She's right, and you understand her distress -- and also why she and the others keep opening their doors to Apted and his crew. The ``Up" series strips the human experience of any larger meaning we assign to it as we're in the trenches; it's a nature documentary about the life cycle of a curious animal called man.
If that's depressingly reductive, the films connect the dots of existence in a way that highlights a lovely commonality. No matter their wealth or social status, these people share disappointments and elations and a sense that life, in the end, may be what life is about. Some of them, like the upper-class Suzy, are fairly uninteresting, and this, of course, is what makes them interesting. No one deserves to be left out of the grand experiment.
If you're new to the project, ``49 Up" may leave you scratching your head. It's a holding pattern, an unresolved series of notes that will begin fading in future installments, as the subjects start passing away. If you've been with the ``Up" films for a while, though, this is a muted, reflective family reunion, and the family is bigger than the mind can entertain.