It’s a family affair in more ways than one in this stylish if somewhat uneven prequel to HBO’s epochal drama The Sopranos. Written by series creator David Chase, The Many Saints Of Newark features Michael Gandolfini – son of the late, great James – playing a younger version of his father’s iconic character, Mafioso Tony Soprano, whose formative years coincide with a particularly tumultuous time of civil unrest and gang rivalry in 1960s Newark. But if much of the film’s marketing teases a deep-dive origin story for one of television’s seminal crime bosses, the efforts prove to be rather misleading.
Focus instead shifts to the professional and personal duties of Soprano’s uncle-by-marriage, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a suave but equally flawed member of the powerful DiMeo crime family. The clue is hidden in plain sight: Moltisanti, a name that will already be familiar to viewers of The Sopranos, means ‘many saints’ in Italian. Sadly, little else about director Alan Taylor’s film is quite as impressively understated. From its sombre opening – a tracking shot through a cemetery – to regular diegetic news bulletins about the Vietnam War, this is a story set rather unambiguously against a backdrop of violence and death.
The emotional and occasionally literal conflict between family and pseudo-family, often the fulcrum of the mob movie narrative, unsurprisingly ranks high in the dramatic stakes, while the film’s central dilemma – the growing tension between organised crime’s white, bigoted old guard and an African-American gang (headed up by Leslie Odom Jr.’s ambitious Harold McBrayer) – serves as an intriguing if largely unsubtle microcosm of America’s wider race relations during an era of fervent political activism and controversial foreign policy.
Suffice to say then, like bullets from the gun of a trigger-happy wise guy, Taylor’s film unloads a multitude of ideas that hit with varying degrees of impact. Helmed by a surplus of on-screen talent – Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Ray Liotta and a criminally underserved Vera Farmiga – and with subplots to spare, The Many Saints Of Newark often feels like an entire season’s worth of drama shoehorned into 120 intense minutes. Nevertheless, there is much for fans of the original show to savour here. In the end, rather aptly for a film of this ilk, loyalty is rewarded.
Dir: Alan Taylor (15, 120 mins)
Released in cinemas on Wed 22 Sept
words GEORGE NASH
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