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The Many Saints of Newark review – Sopranos prequel is a punchy throwback

Alessandro Nivola and Vera Farmiga shine, but the show's perfect balance of comedy and drama gets a bit lost in the transition to film

After pretty much starting (and almost immediately perfecting) the whole era of prestige, movie-like TV, it only feels fitting that The Sopranos should manage to nab itself one of the glitziest transitions to the big screen of any of its stablemates. The Many Saints of Newark is not a TV movie like the one Deadwood received, or relegated to streaming only a la Breaking Bad epilogue El Camino, but a proper, star-studded gangster thriller that, in the UK at least, is confined to the cinema alone. It’s a welcome expansion for David Chase’s immaculately crafted world, though muddled priorities keep it from ever reaching the great heights of the series that spawned it.

Given the tragic loss of James Gandolfini and the ambiguous yet decidedly final ending of the show, Chase and director Alan Taylor – a Sopranos veteran – jump backwards, setting the action in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, with the Newark riots and subsequent “White Flight” providing the story’s backdrop. Though the trailers have naturally gravitated towards the more easily marketable plotline of a young Tony (played by Gandolfini’s son Michael) growing into his Mafia role, he’s not actually our lead. That position is instead filled by Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), father of Christopher (Michael Imperioli, who provides beyond-the-grave narration).

Dickie has plenty of echoes of the Tony we’ll meet in the show, smarter than the dumb thugs around him, but still not quite smart enough to escape the deadly delusions that are so central to any Sopranos story. He’s trying to look to the future, escaping the shadow of his violent moron of a father while increasing business with the local Black outfits and taking Tony under his wing.

There’s a lot of fan-service in Many Saints, and Nivola has to rise above it all to hold our attention as one of the few characters here we’re not already familiar with, a task he manages with a witty, charismatic performance. Nivola has been hovering at the edges of being a proper leading man for a while now and, on this showing, he really does seem ready for the big time. The rest of the cast are, naturally, restricted into more impression-style performances, but, for the most part, this works –especially whenever Vera Farmiga is on screen as Tony’s monstrous mother Livia, an icily brilliant reminder of Nancy Marchand’s perfect small-screen portrayal.

Only John Magaro, as a younger Silvio, fully falls into caricature, while Leslie Odom Jr. also impresses as Harold McBrayer, whose ambition takes him from being a friendly partner of Dickie’s to his most dangerous rival. It’s in this growing animosity that Many Saints deviates most sharply from its source material, becoming a more conventional gangster movie, which is fun enough but never as gripping as the acid-laced interpersonal conflict of Tony’s extended family. Chase repeats the trick of the show to have certain plot points peter out slowly, only to show up again later in a sudden, maybe anticlimactic way, which, it turns out, works a lot better in long-form TV than in a two-hour movie.

Once you get past the giddy thrill of getting to see all the old geezers of The Sopranos in their prime, it is sometimes hard to know exactly who Many Saints is for. The name-drops and foreshadowing won’t mean much to casual audiences, but, for die-hard fans, Chase isn’t content to simply make “the Sopranos movie,” which is admirable but proves a little frustrating, especially in the lack of the big laughs that made The Sopranos such a unique piece of prestige TV. This was a show with not only the depth and richness of any of the dramas that followed it, eclipsed perhaps only by The Wire, but also more jokes per episode than most sitcoms.

It’s not exactly fair to compare a single movie to one of the top-three greatest American shows of all time, and Many Saints is a punchy throwback thriller in its own right, one that moves at a wickedly fast pace, so the two hours in its company are a lot of fun. It’s no “College” or “Pine Barrens,” but as a snapshot of this universe, it upholds The Sopranos’s near-unimpeachable legacy.

The Many Saints of Newark is now showing in UK cinemas.

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