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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 12/16/1999, B: Steve Vineberg,

Life's stories

There's no downside to 42 Up

by Steve Vineberg

If you've become caught up in Michael Apted's remarkable ongoing documentary project -- he began with 13 seven-year-olds and has caught them at the end of each seven-year cycle since -- you may be amazed at how much of their stories you hold in your head during the intervals between movies, and how big a stake you have in what happens to them. Not that Apted requires you to remember -- he's structured these movies so that audiences can join the march of his subjects' lives at any time and feel both the jolt and the delight of how they're turning out. In 42 Up he glances back at his subjects at 35, 28, 21, 14, and especially at 7, so that you can link up their present lives with their earlier aspirations, their middle-aged faces with their youthful ones -- and, inevitably, their youth with that of their own children. Bruce, who as a little boy spoke of a desire to instruct uncivilized Africans to "be good," has ended up, after prep school and Oxford, teaching in Bangladesh and London's East End. Symon remains frustrated at the distance the children from his first marriage have maintained from the family he's made with his second wife: he grew up without a father, and at 28 he was proud of having provided his kids with what he felt such an aching lack of in his own childhood.

The marriages Apted's interviewees have sustained into their 40s are cheering -- Suzy's (she now speaks freely about her feelings about her own parents' divorce during her teen years), Tony's (though he acknowledges he and his wife have "been to the edge of the cliff a couple of times and looked over"), Nick's, Paul's, Andrew's. At the end of the century, that's a high rate of successful partnerships, and Apted affords us glimpses of the delicate negotiations that keep a union in balance. Bruce, who spoke in earlier films of a need for the companionship he hadn't yet found, has married a fellow teacher, Penny, since 35 Up, and when you hear her praise the qualities of this sweet, generous, unassuming man, you may feel a surge of gratitude at the way life sometimes catches up with our desires. You may also experience a kind of awe at the willingness of Apted's subjects to take the cards life deals them without bellyaching. Paul talks about his comfort with middle age, about having learned to live with his lifelong problems with confidence and emotional expression. Jackie, raising three little boys outside Glasgow, has had constant financial obstacles, and rheumatoid arthritis has made it hard for her to keep working. But she emphasizes her joy at having found an ideal place to raise her kids, and her relationship with her ex-mother-in-law, who has remained in her life and helps her unstintingly with the boys. Jackie may be down about her illness, but not, she insists, about her life -- she feels happy and grateful.

From the outset, Apted linked Jackie with Lynn and Sue -- three working-class girls who were schoolmates -- and he also grouped three aristocrats, John, Andrew, and Charles. John dropped out of the project after 28 Up; Charles declined to participate this time around. And Andrew, who in the last film alluded to "this little poison pill" he feels obliged to ingest every seven years, confesses that he's sorry his schoolmaster recommended him for 7 Up and that he would never put his own children through such an ordeal. That it's these representatives of the upper class who have struggled most with the films is fascinating but perhaps not completely surprising. Everyone in 42 Up has had to deal with the emotional implications of examining their lives every seven years, but only these three have also been reminded continually that they had their paths set for them in grade school. When Charles decided to attend Durham University -- to avoid the Marlborough-Oxbridge "conveyor belt" -- he sounded as if he were bucking the expectations of his entire class. Watching 28 Up, the first of the movies I saw, I thought I detected a bias against these young aristocrats. But in the light of the rollercoaster lives most of the others have had, I've begun to feel that it's Andrew -- who names persistence and a lack of adventurousness as the virtues that have brought him safely through -- who hasn't had the right opportunities.

Apted saves Neil for last. In 28 Up, he's first a squatter and then a nomad wandering around Scotland; at 35, he's living on a council estate on the Shetland Islands and telling Apted he's likely to be homeless again when they next meet. By the time Apted gets around to him, in the last 20 minutes of 42 Up, we discover he's busily engaged in community politics, of all things. He still isn't making a living (his political work is gratis -- he lives entirely on state benefits), he continues to talk about the lack of a stable relationship in his life, and he hasn't lost his nervousness -- his hands shake and his eyes have a fugitive look. But given his struggles with mental illness, he's clearly carved out some kind of salvation for himself. Besides, over the last 14 years he's forged an entirely unexpected close friendship with Bruce, who befriended him at the party after the shooting of 28 Up and even housed him for a while. (Bruce is hands down my favorite character in any movie this year.) In clips of Bruce and Penny's wedding, we see Neil getting up to give a toast, and the moment is ineffable. 42 Up engages you in ways that other movies can't; it works emotional muscles you may not know you have.