Not even the British class system can outsmart that great equalizer, age.
“56 Up” is the latest entry in Michael Apted’s singular documentary series for Granada Television (shown theatrically in the U.S.) that’s chronicled the lives of 13 disparate British school kids since 1964.
Every seven years (the BBC’s original “Seven Up!” introduced the children at that age), Apted trains his camera on Andrew, Bruce, Lynn and the others whose names have become familiar across Britain.
What started as a crafty way of looking at the U.K.’s rigid class structure (perhaps the most indelible segment in all eight films remains the preternaturally posh seven-year-old Andrew, Charles and John discussing the Financial Times), has grown into a portrait of melancholy middle age, with its heartbreaks and minor-key triumphs.
No small portion of the films’ continuing appeal is their presentation of childhood promise fulfilled -- or not. If “56” lacks the brashness of earlier installments, making for a slightly duller chapter than usual, the project remains a fascination.
Of the original 13, only Charles dropped out of the series. Peter, who ended his participation at 28 when his anti-Thatcher comments brought scorn from the British press, returns at 56, a civil servant also enjoying some success in a rock band.
Jackie, one of three East London girls who first charmed viewers with her working-class candor, continues to do so in middle-age as the backbone of a family beset by death, illness and general hard times.
Though the wealthier ex-kids seem more confident in confronting new challenges, they all face the same issues brought on just by aging.
And as has been true for decades, none of the participants is more intriguing than Neil, the once handsome, funny and brilliant seven-year-old whose adult life, as glimpsed in these seven-year-installments, has been fractured by mental health problems and homelessness.
At 56, Neil remains a flinty, solitary figure. He’s a lay minister and local district councillor living on modest funds in a small Northern village.
Conceding only to the occasional “nervous complaint,” Neil is jittery and defiant, a man who has allowed his life to be chronicled on film yet who, like many of his fellow participants, remains skeptical of the project’s value.
“I want to set the record straight,” he tells Apted -- and the millions who have watched him grow up. “No one knows how I feel.”
“56 Up,” from First Run Features, is playing in New York. Rating: ***1/2 (Evans)
At first “My Brooklyn” looks like the kind of studious documentary that well-meaning liberals put audiences to sleep with. By the end, though, it’s likely to have viewers boiling.
Kelly Anderson, the director, and her chief researcher, Allison Lirish Dean, explode the comforting idea that the gentrification changing downtown Brooklyn is just an organic process of some people moving in and others moving out.
The city of New York and private developers, following a 2004 blueprint called the Downtown Brooklyn Plan -- which was swiftly endorsed by every local agency in possession of a rubber stamp -- made it happen.
In 2004, according to Anderson, the Fulton Mall in downtown Brooklyn was the third most successful shopping area in New York (after Fifth and Madison avenues), attracting 100,000 consumers a day.
Then why alter it? Because its sneaker stores and wig shops, which had been building up their (largely minority) clientele for decades, didn’t appeal to the upscale transplants from Manhattan who were snapping up brownstones nearby.
Before long, with generous subsidies from the city, a swarm of luxury high-rises was changing the Brooklyn skyline. Meanwhile, the mall’s small-business owners were getting eviction notices -- without, of course, any offers of subsidies to help them relocate.
As outraged activists howled over the displacement of their community, city officials nodded sympathetically. Just as they do for Anderson’s camera.
Craig Wilder, an eloquent MIT historian who was born in Brooklyn, sums up the process in two words: “It’s obscene.”
“My Brooklyn,” from New Day Films, is playing in Brooklyn. Rating: **** (Seligman)
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(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)
Muse highlights include New York Weekend and Lewis Lapham on books.