The Many Saints of Newark, review: riveting Sopranos prequel that reveals how Tony got tough

Alessandro Nivola (right), The Many Saints of Newark, Michael Gandolfini (centre), Vera Farmiga (left) and cast in The Many Saints of Newark - Landmark/Alamy
Alessandro Nivola (right), The Many Saints of Newark, Michael Gandolfini (centre), Vera Farmiga (left) and cast in The Many Saints of Newark - Landmark/Alamy
  • 15 cert, 120 min. Dir: Alan Taylor

HBO’s great mob saga The Sopranos, which basically initiated long-form American TV drama as we now know it, ended its run on a note of celebrated ambiguity in 2007: a quick, hard cut to black at a New Jersey ice cream parlour.

Did this mean, as widely assumed, that Tony Soprano finally got whacked, after his many grisly deeds and long, dark nights of the soul? In fact, no – it simply left us in a state of permanent suspense about his fate. Anyone’s lingering fantasy of a sequel – an idea never entertained by creator David Chase – was scotched forever when James Gandolfini, who played Tony, died in 2013.

There remain other questions. Such as: what, and who, made Tony the way he was? Zigzagging us forward from his childhood, The Many Saints of Newark is a standalone Sopranos prequel whose insights are refreshingly unexpected. The choice of director is Alan Taylor, a series veteran who enforces a certain punchy-yet-fluent house style, with gruesome bursts of bloodshed and a soundtrack of jazz/funk/soul laments.

You don’t need a PhD in Sopranos-ology to get hooked (again), but this film is not for total novices. Dedicated viewers should be forewarned, as Chase drops some major bombshells after all these years. (I’ll be spoiling none, for fear of being popped at my next screening.)

If you’re assuming Tony is the main character, though: fuhgedaboudit. He’s a mere blob of a boy as it starts, innocent of mob morals, goofing off on the sidelines. (He’s played at that age by William Ludwig, then as a restless teenager by Gandolfini’s son, Michael.)

Michael Gandolfini and Alessandro Nivola in The Many Saints of Newark - Landmark/Alamy
Michael Gandolfini and Alessandro Nivola in The Many Saints of Newark - Landmark/Alamy

“Many Saints” points us to the surname of our narrator, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), who could logically know little of these events, seeing as they pre-date his own birth in 1969. We allow it, but only because he’s narrating from his grave: Chris is the cousin-in-law Tony asphyxiated in season six, who’s understandably peeved to be rotting under a hillside. It’s a brilliantly ghoulish idea to get his whole take.

It’s Chris’s father, a middle-ranking mob soldier called Dickie (Alessandro Nivola), whom we chiefly follow. Young Tony is drawn to this sharp-witted mentor, whom he calls uncle, much more than his racist thug of a dad (Jon Bernthal, a bit neglected) or indeed Junior (Corey Stoll), his actual uncle by blood.

Remember Tony’s ma Livia, as nailed by the vinegary Nancy Marchand? Vera Farmiga portrays her in middle age, and does a bravura double job – reminding us plenty enough of Marchand, but also quite pointedly of Edie Falco’s Carmela, as if to underline everything Oedipally mother-fixated in that marriage.

Chase calls I, Claudius one of his favourite books, which figures: The Sopranos’ toxic intrigue always felt twinned with Ancient Rome’s. (Livia was the name of the emperor Tiberius’s mother.) You could regard this film as Chase dishing his Romulus and Remus origin story – a foundation myth for Tony’s whole empire, complete with fratricidal subplot.

Dickie, our focal figure, is fighting not to become his own bullying dad (a splenetic Ray Liotta) while pursuing an equally reptilian love life. It’s he whom the film frames as an inescapable model for Tony – a career criminal who does terrible things on impulse, but remains haunted by the notion of the good deed.

The best of all Dickie’s deeds – this is the crux – would be cutting off Tony stone-dead, leaving the boy to find his own way. As we already, tragically, know, his protégé will inherit this exact syndrome of failing to be a better man.

Nivola skulks through it all with compelling ambivalence. He has a charismatic counterpart in the shape of the excellent Leslie Odom, Jr, who plays an increasingly fuming hood called Harold McBrayer; the interweaving of their stories absorbs as much as any B-plot in The Sopranos before.

The dramatic punchlines are reliably bang on, even if subtlety isn’t always a strong suit. When baby Christopher quails at teenage Tony on sight, it’s a hilariously morbid moment the film should have served straight, without a chaser of wink-wink dialogue. Also, John Magaro, as the grimacing Silvio, goes way overboard, suggesting the kind of pushy impersonation a coarser prequel might have peppered us with all over.

These are niggles. Sinewy and smart, it’s a rich imaginative leap into the pre-history of an iconic show, and a rare instance of the big screen doing right by the small.

In cinemas from September 22