As a big fan of The Sopranos, the prospect of a prequel film giving key background information for Tony and many of the characters from that series was an exciting one. There is a deep history in the show which isn’t often explored (aside from the occasional flashback) so to get a proper exploration of such a rich world should make for guaranteed success.
The results, however, are a bit hit or miss.
To start with the positive aspects, anything to do with principal characters from the series is very compelling. There has been much publicity surrounding the casting of Michael Gandolfini as a young Tony Soprano – a role immortalised by his late father, James – but this is no nepotistic or sentimental casting choice. It’s almost uncanny at times, with certain facial expressions and inflections in his voice really echoing James Gandolfini’s turn as Tony in a way that few other actors could.
Of course he plays a much younger, more naive version of the character who is yet to truly come to terms with the violent reality of what his family does. Knowing where this sweet, if a little misguided, young man ends up is the most poignant part of the film, the inevitability of lost innocence.
A key part of the series and the root of much of Tony’s trauma is his relationship with his manipulative mother Livia (Vera Farmiga). Seeing that dynamic played out here helps to provide more context to the anxiety Tony experiences in adulthood. Farmiga is excellent at portraying the neurotic mother figure, and the scenes between her and Gandolfini will be the most pertinent for fans of the series.
It is in the elements written just for the film where it begins to fall down somewhat. The film’s protagonist is Dickie Moltisanti, a character name checked in the series without ever being seen. He is Tony’s uncle and has to navigate a very difficult and violent period for the New Jersey mafia. The main issue with him throughout the film is that he is entirely unsympathetic. He constantly talks about wanting to do good things, however almost everything he does in the film ranges from the bad to the downright horrible. Without spoiling, there is one act towards the end of the film which is just unforgivable and leaves a really bad taste in the mouth.
Perhaps the film would have been better served as a six- or eight-part miniseries. The beauty of The Sopranos is that we spend so much time with Tony (eighty-six episodes to be precise) and so gain a far better understanding of him as a person. This is something which we do not experience with Dicky in a two-hour film, despite the best efforts of Alessandro Nivola in the lead. Indeed, writer David Chase’s main medium has always been television and this story could have been a lot more fleshed out.
There is a subplot surrounding Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a low-level, African-American member of Dicky’s crew who decides to go out on his own amid simmering racial tensions, which lacks any major conclusion. Again, the increased screen time afforded by television could have given this thread much more life and allowed for important social commentary within the setting of the New Jersey race riots of the late 1960s.
Overall, The Many Saints of Newark is a mixed bag of a film. There is plenty to enjoy for fans of the original series, including some little easter eggs and in-jokes for the already initiated (the term “varsity athlete” is mentioned). However, the film’s downfall comes from an unsympathetic lead and underdeveloped subplots – issues which could perhaps have been resolved by release as a miniseries, as opposed to a two-hour film.
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