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Six Degrees of Separation (1993)

Watching the biopic of Donald Sutherland on Sky Arts inspired me to rent one of the more neglected films in his canon of considerable work – Six Degrees of Separation.

Sutherland is in every sense a towering actor able to fulfil many roles, the concerned father in Ordinary People, the cop in Klute and even an Irish Republican troubadour in The Eagle has Landed.

In the above film he plays suave New York art dealer Flan Sanders maximising his contact book as middleman in art dealing.

He spends most of his time at smart receptions and fashionable restaurant dinners.

He is just entertaining a South African millionaire (Ian McKellen) to fund a Cezanne purchase for immediate resale when Paul (Will Smith) pitches up in his apartment with the improbable tale that he was mugged in Central Park and is the son of Sidney Poitier.

He rather resembles Mr Ripley in the Patricia Higsmith novel and film.

A gay fantasist he inveigles himself in with rich Manhattan couples. It started life as successful play and Stockard Canning – as Flann’s wife Ouisa- reprises her theatrical role in the movie.

Whilst killingly funny – the type of self mocking New York films Woody Allen and others do so well – it carries a message of what is reality and fantasy in that rich New York world.

Alice Mansfield was amazed at the prices fetched in 1993 for a Cezanne ($2m) – you an multiply that by 50 now. It’s as revealing of the art world as New York high society and Donald Sutherland is quite superb in a beautifully nuanced performance.

The only critique is that Will Smith’s speeches are far too long and though this did not bother me it all seemed dated from this distance of time. It also has a pleasing narrational arc of Sutherland and Channing explaining the extraordinary story of deception to an admiring and intrigued audience normally over some sumptuous meal. At one such meal in a restaurant on the Upper East Side Sutherland plays detective and asks his fellow diners all duped by Paul what is our common link? It transpires that it’s their children at college, one of whom knows a student who takes in and was taken in by Paul, taught him elocution and presentational skills and in pre Google days he still mugged up on all the details of the family whose identity he was assuming. At a subsequent point his father is no longer Sidney Poitier but the art dealer Flan. It’s a film of many layers, that does not have the narrowness of setting that some play adaptations do and certainly worth revisiting.

About Neil Rosen

Neil went to the City of London School and Manchester University graduating with a 1st in economics. After a brief stint in accountancy, Neil emigrated to a kibbutz In Israel. His articles on the burgeoning Israeli film industry earned comparisons to Truffaut and Godard in Cahiers du Cinema. Now one of the world's leading film critics and moderators at film Festivals Neil has written definitively in his book Kosher Nostra on Jewish post war actors. Neil lives with his family in North London. More Posts