With The Sopranos routinely listed amongst the finest TV shows of all time, and often cited as the beginning of a golden age of television, it is perhaps no surprise that HBO would eventually create new content in this universe. That they have held off on this since the series ended in 2007 is commendable, when contrasted with their rush to push out more Game of Thrones content.
Speaking of that programme, The Many Saints of Newark is helmed by Alan Taylor, a director who first came to prominence through his work in Westeros. In the intervening years his stock has fallen somewhat, with Thor: The Dark World and Terminator Genisys usually considered the weakest entries in its respective franchises. Although receiving a theatrical release, this is an HBO product, putting Taylor back on home territory – in an area in which he has excelled.
Originally announced in the spring of 2018, publicity for this prequel focused on the casting of Michael Gandolfini as a young Tony Soprano, meaning he would be attempting a role made famous by his father, James, who died at the age of 51 in 2013. Marketing for the film suggested that it would focus on the young Tony’s rise to power – possibly explaining his journey into the mob – and the shaping of the personality we came to know in the parent show. This is somewhat misleading, as the true focus of the film is hiding in plain sight – in the film’s title – as ‘Many Saints’ is the English translation of ‘Moltisanti’.
Knowing this, it is less of a surprise that the main character is Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), father of Christopher, a major character in the originally show, and played by Michael Imperioli. Christopher also acts as narrator for this story. We start in the late 1960s – more specifically 1967 – against the backdrop of the Newark riots, meeting all of the main characters: Dickie’s father, Aldo (Ray Liotta); Tony’s father, Giovanni (Jon Bernthal); Tony’s mother, Livia (played here by Vera Farmiga, who is made up to look like as much as possible like the late Nancy Marchand, and in fact even looks a little like Edie Falco – Tony’s wife Carmela); as well as Corey Stoll as the younger Junior Soprano. Aldo has brought home a new, much younger wife, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), with whom Dickie forms an immediate attachment. Key to this section of the film is that it ends with the imprisonment of Tony’s father, leaving Tony to seek out Dickie as a father figure, and increasing tensions with his mother – always a cold and difficult presence in his life.
Moving forward to 1973, Tony is now a teenager, Dickie continues his affair with, effectively, his stepmother, and the DiMeo crime family, of which Dickie is a senior member, faces a challenge for supremacy from Leslie Dom’s Harold McBrayer character, who will use every tactic possible to undermine the crew for which he once worked. With Tony showing signs of deep intelligence, amongst his more obvious behavioural issues, both inside and outside of school, Dickie must make a decision as to how far he lets this promising young man into a world that could define the rest of his life.
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It was a deliberate decision not to rewatch any of the seasons of the original show before tackling The Many Saints of Newark, as it was important that this film stand alone as its own story. By and large, Taylor has succeeded in this: there is no feeling engendered, as with the Star Wars prequels, for example, of the story existing simply as fan service to fill in gaps in our knowledge, or tell stories referred to elsewhere. Yes, we do see elements of Dickie’s story, as referred to in the show, and there are certainly pleasures to be had in seeing embryonic versions of personality traits that we know so well from the older counterparts: Silvio’s hair and facial expressions while talking; Paulie’s preening vanity; Junior’s petulant temper. Otherwise, this is quality storytelling that requires no prior knowledge of The Sopranos, even if it would enrich enjoyment of this film.
The film is beautifully shot, having a slight desaturation that almost implies age – that we are watching something found in a vault and restored impeccably, though without the cliché of a golden hue – this is not a time for which we are supposed to feel nostalgia. Nivola is a revelation in the role of Dickie, and Michael Gandolfini is almost eerily like a younger James, with almost identical facial features and a voice that is similarly close. Stoll, John Magaro (Silvio) and Samson Moeakiola (as a young Salvatore), in particular have clearly studied their predecessors in their roles, and picked up body language and movement to an uncanny degree. On that point, whilst Gandolfini looks so much like his father, the younger Tony (William Ludwig) looks a lot like Tony and Carmela’s son, Anthony (Robert Iler), as he appeared in the earlier seasons of the show. In short, the film is made with love and care, and with reverence for the show: not a surprise when David Chase, creator of the show, is a producer here, and the script was written by Lawrence Konner, screenwriter for The Sopranos.
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Any disappointment experienced with this film by fans of the show is likely to come from the aforementioned marketing of this work. This is really not a Tony Soprano origin story, even though it frequently flirts with being one in the final act. Nor is it a case of assembling the chess pieces into the position we will find them in 1999. This is a story of the challenge to a mob family, and the emotional struggles of Dickie, who vacillates between wanting to be a good man (and a father) and enjoying the illicit trappings of the mob life. This is complemented by just an undercurrent of showing us earlier iterations of the characters we know, and presenting us with traits we will recognise.
Although enjoyment of The Many Saints of Newark is likely to be enhanced by some prior knowledge, the lack of expectations that will come with going in fresh to this world should mean that the uninitiated will have a positive experience, if for different reasons. This is a fine piece of work, providing it is taken as a standalone story, based in the same setting as a very influential and entertaining television show, rather than as that prequel that will answer all questions.
The Many Saints of Newark is out now in Cinemas.