I admit I've given Michael Apted a hard time about the Up series in the past. Recent installments have been meandering and have seemed to lose focus over what the series is really all about. In the last couple of films, Apted has erred toward sensationalism rather than introspection.
49 Up marks a return to basics and fine form. It's a more thoughtful documentary about life in England, and a better-organized one than the past entries. Finally, for the first time in years, the stories are told with grace and power, and the film really sucks you in. Now that Apted is in his 60s and he's hitting Up with its seventh installment, maybe he's finally determined the best way to present this material.
At 2 hours, 13 minutes, the film is actually seven minutes shorter than 42 Up, finally halting an inexorable creep toward infinite length that found Apted trying to jam more and more footage into each movie. This helps a lot. He carefully divides time among the 12 remaining cast members (two of the original players have dropped out), both giving them time to discuss their lives today vs. contrasting that with what they said in the past.
One player (and forgive me for not keeping all the names straight) says in his youth that he can't imagine keeping a job as a laborer for more than a year or so. At 49, he's still handling freight at Heathrow and has no plans to leave.
Other characters have been remarkably prescient about where their lives would go. The wealthier boys went to Cambridge or Oxford and became barristers, just as they said they would.
One of the women complains for most of her screen time that Apted hasn't portrayed her fairly. Basically she exudes vitriol for 10 minutes, directed at Apted. Obviously she's been carrying this grudge for decades. Meanwhile, we see vividly how "reality" shows can impact a person who, theoretically, is only being "observed."
Inarguably the most fascinating tale is that of Neil, who had a promising life in his teens but was homeless by 28. In a turnaround story of almost impossible proportions, he's turned his life around and is now a local politician and respected member of his rural town. It's a jaw-dropping change to observe.
I'm not sure this is a great film to see theatrically (and it's been produced for television primarily), but it's certainly a film that, for the first time in a long while, it's one I'd recommend you see in some format or another.