As World of Wonder writer Trey Speegle wrote earlier today:
“… his Up series is One of THE greatest cinematic achievements ever. Truly.“
I agree with Mr. Speegle (and so much more).
Agatha (1979) is one of my favorite forgotten film gems. From a screenplay by Kathleen Tynan, it stars Vanessa Redgrave, Dustin Hoffman and Timothy Dalton, never in better form. The film focuses on the great crime writer Agatha Christie‘s notorious real-life 11-day disappearance in 1926 that was never explained. It is a handsome, engaging film that serves as a mystery story, a love story and a bit of a biopic, made even better by the performances of its leading actors. Agatha lives up to the legacy of its subject matter in every respect. With fine sense of period detail and Vittorio Storaro‘s gorgeous cinematography, this film is a an evocation of the 1920’s gentility.
Agatha‘s director was the very versatile Michael Apted, whose films Speegle notes are as diverse as the James Bond flick The World Is Not Enough (1999) and the Academy Award-winning stories of real-life figures naturalist Dian Fossey played Sigourney Weaver, Gorillas In The Mist (1988), and country music star Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek), Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980).
Apted made his legacy with the remarkable Up documentary series, which followed the lives of a group of British people in seven-year intervals for more than a half century. Produced by Granada Television Seven Up! (1964), took 14 British children at seven years old and interviewed them about their lives and opinions, seven from a working-class background and seven from the upper-class.
Apted was a researcher at Granada Television when he helped pick the 14 kids who became the subjects of Seven Up!, the first in the Up series, which was directed by Paul Almond. The documentary was intended to be a one-off, but Apted picked it up seven years later, acting as director of 7 Plus Seven, broadcast in England in late 1970, in which he interviewed the same children, now teenagers.
Then came 21 Up (1977), 28 Up (1984) and so on, with new installments arriving every seven years, eventually spanning 56 years, all directed by Apted. 63 Up was released in 2019.
The nine installments are gripping and moving look at British class, history, and identity; conceived before reality television. They had a huge effect on British social realist cinema from the early 1960s to the present day, including on one of the greatest American films of the 21st century: Boyhood (2014), Richard Linklater‘s coming-of-age story of a young man filmed over 12 years.
“I realized for the first time, after 20 years on the project, that I really hadn’t made a political film at all. What I had seen as a significant statement about the English class system was in fact a humanistic document about the real issues of life.”
While revisiting Up for six decades, Apted worked steadily in television and film in all sorts of genres. He directed the John Belushi comedy Continental Divide (1981); the crime drama Gorky Park (1983) starring William Hurt; Thunderheart (1992), a tense thriller with Val Kilmer, and Nell (1994), a vehicle for Jodie Foster; Extreme Measures (1996), a thriller dealing with medical ethics starring Hugh Grant, Gene Hackman, Sarah Jessica Parker; Amazing Grace (2006) is about the campaign against the slave trade in the British Empire.
Apted continued directing documentaries, including Bring On The Night (1985), a concert film about Sting; The Long Way Home (1989), chronicling the UK, USA and USSR adventures of Boris Grebenshchikov, a Soviet underground musician allowed to record in the West; the creative process is examined in Inspirations (1997), with seven artists from different media, including David Bowie, Dale Chihuly, and Roy Lichtenstein. Apted directed Moving The Mountain (1994) about the origins of the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square.
His final film is Unlocked (2017), a thriller with Noomi Rapace, Orlando Bloom, John Malkovich and Toni Collette.
The majority of Apted’s films are based around a female protagonist. Gorillas In The Mist was nominated for five Academy Awards and the movie won two Golden Globe Awards including one for Sigourney Weaver. Coal Miner’s Daughter received seven Academy Award nominations, winning one for Spacek. Both Spacek and Loretta Lynn have said that Apted’s outsider point of view was crucial to the film’s success in securing the participation of real Appalachians and not pandering to stereotypes that previously been made about mountain culture.
“The biggest social revolution in my life, growing up in England, has been the change in the role of women in society. We didn’t have civil rights and Vietnam in England, but I think that particular social revolution is the biggest thing, and I missed it by not having enough women. And because I didn’t have enough women, I didn’t have enough choice of what options were in front of women who were building careers and having families and all this sort of stuff.
Looking at everything, they’re all to do with women’s role in society and what women have to do to have a role in society, or the choices women have to make to stay in society or have a voice in society, in both straightforward and eccentric ways. That’s always interested me. And that, I think, stems from the feeling that I slightly missed out.”
Apted’s final credits rolled on Thursday. He was 79 years old.
The Up series, Gorillas In The Mist and Cole Miner’s Daughter are available on YouTube. Agatha is streaming on Amazon Prime.