The Many Saints Of Newark (4 stars)

The Many Saints Of Newark

Michael Gandolfini follows in the footsteps of his father James as The Sopranos gets an impressive prequel

When the great James Gandolfini died in 2013, six years after putting to bed TV tough guy Tony Soprano, it seemed to polish off any hope of a revival – even though the character's final onscreen moments were, in themselves, deliciously ambiguous. But the appetite for more of the genial gangster is strong and this feature-length prequel to HBO's The Sopranos, written by series creator David Chase and Lawrence Konner, and directed by Alan Taylor, acts as a kind of origin story. In a risky / inspired move, it casts James's son, the now 22-year-old Michael Gandolfini, as the young Tony, and surrounds him with a number of acting big guns.

The story begins in 1967 against a backdrop of the Newark Riots, with Alessandro Nivola playing Richard 'Dickie' Moltisanti, the much-mentioned father of Michael Imperioli's series regular Christopher. Ray Liotta is Dickie's father Aldo, who brings home a youthful new Italian wife (Michela De Rossi), only for her to catch his married son's eye. William Ludwig plays the young Tony before Gandolfini takes over, with Vera Farmiga as his melodramatic mother Livia, Jon Bernthal as his tempestuous father Johnny Boy, Corey Stoll as the vindictive and not to be underestimated Junior, and amusing appearances from John Magaro and Billy Magnussen as an unmistakable Silvio and Paulie. Leslie Odom Jr has a meatier role as Dickie's former skivvy and eventual rival Harold.

Although The Many Saints Of Newark is in the tradition of classic gangster films, it's not the making of Tony Soprano that you might expect, dealing with the period prior to Tony's involvement in organised crime, but focusing on some formative experiences. As a result, the expected comparisons to the first Godfather film are rendered at least partially redundant and it deftly avoids evoking Goodfellas too heavily by cutting short Christopher's beyond-the-grave voiceover at the outset, and letting things unfold more naturally.

And, though this prequel contains plenty to please fans (which we won't ruin here), it confidently steps out of the colossal shadow of The Sopranos TV series with its leftfield approach to filling in backstory. It slightly sidelines Tony and his brood, while we get to know another pivotal character in Dickie, allowing the film to become its own beast. It's a decision that Nivola vindicates with his layered and transfixing turn.

The Many Saints Of Newark also distinguishes itself by examining the racial tensions of the time through Odom Jr's Harold. It shows attempts by the city's African American population to rise above the shitty hand they've been dealt, and creates ample tension when it pits the charismatic Harold against the gang of racist reprobates we already know. Such smart thinking abounds; as a whole this is a thoroughly classy effort, largely avoiding the show's tendency toward 'sexposition' and favouring a slightly washed-out aesthetic that gives it the feel of a faded memory.

With plenty going on elsewhere and the cast nailing their performances (Liotta is great and Farmiga gets some enjoyably withering moments, including a typically Livian 'poor you'), the film far from rests on Gandolfini's inexperienced shoulders, a decision that seems both canny and kind, though the young actor is nevertheless very good. His Tony is a sweet, sharp and rebellious teen, a born leader desperately in need of a decent father figure, which Dickie obligingly becomes.

Such close-to-home themes, combined with Gandolfini's striking resemblance to his late father, lend considerable poignancy to his performance; he might not be particularly stretched here, but he's a screen natural with an irresistible innocence and the same spark in his eyes as his dad. If the film ends somewhat abruptly, it's at a point which suggests further instalments may well be possible. And to that we say 'yes please'.

Available to watch in cinemas from Wednesday 22 September.

The Many Saints of Newark

  • 4 stars
  • 2021
  • US
  • 2h
  • 15
  • Directed by: Alan Taylor
  • Cast: Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Michael Gandolfini, Billy Magnussen, Michela De Rossi, John Magaro, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga

Young Anthony Soprano is growing up in one of the most tumultuous eras in Newark, N.J., history, becoming a man just as rival gangsters start to rise up and challenge the all-powerful DiMeo crime family. Caught up in the changing times is the uncle he idolizes, Dickie Moltisanti, whose influence over his nephew will help…