The Many Saints of Newark: A crime family history of violence

Sopranos prequel – or pilot for a prequel series, perhaps – will have fans swooning

Film Title: The Many Saints of Newark

Director: Alan Taylor

Starring: Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Corey Stoll, Michael Gandolfini, Billy Magnussen, Michela De Rossi, John Magaro, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga, Billy Magnussen, Gabriella Piazza

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 120 min

Fri, Sep 24, 2021, 05:00

   

Just as The Sopranos enjoyed bouncing its protagonist between women – his domineering mother, his psychotherapist, his daughter, his many goomahs – and asking for the real Tony Soprano to stand up, this prequel to the world-conquering TV show mediates a younger Tony through an array of father figures.

Least among them is his biological father, Johnny Boy (Jon Bernthal), who, returning from prison, makes for a strangely unpowered paternal presence against the machismo of the extended clan and the belligerent presence of Tony’s mother, Livia (Vera Farmiga). 

Growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s – Saints plays fast and loose with period details and canonical chronology – Anthony Soprano (immaculately essayed by the late James Gandolfini’s charismatic son, Michael) is swept up by the dangerous charms of his Uncle Dickie (Alessandro Nivola), who, it transpires, is the new film’s protagonist.

The Many Saints of Newark official trailer

Dickie, in turn, ping-pongs between two opposing masculine poles: a cool-headed Buddhist uncle who has learned to philosophise and love jazz during an extended prison sentence and his brutish father, Hollywood Dick (Ray Liotta), whose sexual appetite for his ludicrously young new Italian wife, Joanne (Michela De Rossi), is swiftly eclipsed by a desire to beat her.

As the crime family implodes from within, racial riots trumpet societal shifts that will threaten them from without, as personified by Leslie Odom Jr’s new player on the block.

For fans of the defunct TV show, Saints is a treasure trove of lore and old favourites. Kramer Morgenthau’s cinematography is crisp. The script, by Sopranos creator David Chase and regular series writer Lawrence Konner, is clever and pacy. The final credits, replete with the TV theme, will likely leave diehards swooning in the cinema aisles. Corey Stoll’s Uncle Junior is a joy and there’s something like a Rudyard Kipling fable in the segment that illustrates How Uncle Junior Got His Limp.

Unhappily, the women are sidelined and brutalised, more than contemporaneous detail demands. Even Farmiga’s Livia is given curiously few scenes. There’s enough drama to hold the film together for the uninitiated, although many fleetingly introduced characters suggest that – for all David Chase’s protests against streaming – we’re watching a pilot rather than a truly standalone project.