At the beginning of Seven Up, the original Up documentary, a narrator explains that the filmmakers will be following 14 British children from different social classes to get "a glimpse of England in the year 2000." Michael Apted was only a researcher on Seven Up, but he's helmed a new installment every seven years since, including 1998's 42 Up, which caught nine of those subjects on the cusp of that future the narrator spoke about in 1964. But while all the "Up" films hold a fascination akin to a Christmas letter from an almost-forgotten friend, 42 Up didn't show much progress from 35 Up. Even fans of the series had to wonder whether the faces of England were going to remain permanently frozen.
An element of stasis haunts 49 Up too, but the new film also proves the enduring value of the series: primarily, the way it catches trends by design. In the England of the mid-'00s, disillusionment with Tony Blair's administration has led to some of Apted's subjects abandoning long-held ideals, and working primarily to make themselves more comfortable. At 49, they're moving to the suburbs and building vacation homes. Even Tony, a cab driver, has found a place in Spain, where he can hang around with other displaced Londoners who've had it with socialism and multiculturalism. And the fact that these people—rich and not-so-rich alike—can afford to settle into grandparenthood and conservatism proves an unexpected point. If the purpose of the Up series has been to show how class determines destiny in the UK, then what we've actually learned is that everyone there gets a fair shot to make it to the middle.
Increasingly though, the Up films have become about something more: what it's like to be a reality-TV star. Apted has always allowed his subjects to vent their frustration with his deterministic editing and intrusion into their privacy, but this year more than ever, they're getting touchy about the questions they know they're going to be asked, about their failures and their future. Even upper-class barrister John, who dropped out after 35 Up, returns for 49 Up mainly to complain that he isn't sure the series has any value beyond voyeurism. And he may be right. But Apted has gotten more artful at weaving old footage into new—using images from the past to comment on the present—and his accumulated detail about these people's lives remains indelible. At the end of each segment, longtime followers of the series can always think of a dozen questions that have gone unasked. That isn't Apted's fault. It's just that we see these old friends so infrequently.