Apted has said that the subject with whom he most closely identifies is Nick, the precocious farm boy who goes to Oxford and thereafter moves to America with dreams of making an advance in nuclear physics, only to abandon his research and become a university professor. Apted left England for Hollywood and, like Nick, married and divorced and remarried. But the story of intelligent, ambitious, thoughtful Nick is a story about failed aspiration and the dawning, mortal recognition of limitation. While apparently content—or at least not discontent—with his work and his second marriage, Nick has not done what he once meant to do. I wonder whether Apted—who, beyond the singular accomplishment of the “Up” series, has made films that have been successful, workmanlike, and unremarkable—feels anything of Nick’s sense of resignation, too. And this would be the point to acknowledge that, having moved from a provincial English town to America by way of Oxford, I feel my own painful kinship with Nick, who, in “56 Up,” articulates the loss experienced after self-imposed exile: the sense of distance from the beloved landscape of one’s birth; the remaining visits, so few as to be counted on one hand, that will be made back home to one’s elderly parents in decline.
It’s Nick who, in “56 Up,” best sums up Apted’s achievement. The self he sees represented on the screen, changing and growing over time, isn’t him, exactly, he suggests. His story, like that of any individual, is too broad to convey with a twenty-minute segment every seven years. But, Nick says, it’s a portrait of someone. “It’s a picture of everyman,” he says. “It’s how a person—any person—how they change.” He’s right, of course. This is a series about us as much as it is a series about the individual fates of the children plucked from their classrooms in the early sixties. Apted’s achievement, it turns out, has been quite different from that which the project originally proposed. Rather than revealing the pressures of exterior social forces, the series shows the gradual inner development of empathy and sympathy—on the part of its participants and on the part of its maker. It demands the same enlarging sympathy from its audience. It’s strenuous viewing. It insists that we care, deeply, as we watch Apted and his subjects grow up, and as we follow them down.