There’s a certain challenge one takes on when adapting a secondary story (for lack of a better word) to a televisual project. Whether you continue the narrative as a sequel, take the premise in a more comedic fashion, or simply re-imagine the original, fans of the original property are always going to be the audience you hope to honour in some form possible. With The Many Saints of Newark, the choice to act as a prequel to a series as iconic as The Sopranos means there’s a certain pressure in portraying characters that already have a built-in relationship with the viewers, as well as evoking a certain accessibility for those uninitiated with the source material.
As much as Newark is basing itself around how The Sopranos‘ Tony Soprano (played so masterfully by the late James Gandolfini, here with his son, Michael Gandolfini, taking the reins) came to be such a force, Alan Taylor‘s film is really more of a narrative for Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Tony’s charismatic uncle. The film quickly establishes Dickie’s disarming nature, with the relationship between himself and his father, “Hollywood Dick” (Ray Liotta), who has returned from an Italian holiday with a young bride, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi) laced with an unnerving tension that foreshadows much of the brutality that will befall them.
A story set in two distinct parts, the Taylor and Lawrence Konner-written script – the latter having written episodes of The Sopranos – sets itself around the late 1960’s, where the Newark riots act as something of a metaphor for the rising, burning tension of the warring crime families, and the early 1970’s where the mobsters aim for salvation in quieter suburbs. It goes without saying that a life of crime and the idea of salvation work harmoniously in theory, but the reality – especially for the volatile Dickie – is a far removed ideal.
Whilst the nods to the television series are a more obvious additive to the fans, Newark largely succeeds as its own entity, with Nivola and Liotta both paving their own path free from episodic expectation; Liotta is exceptionally good in a role that affords him the opportunity to flex his usual villainous intimidation, whilst also allowing him to tap into his dramatic and comedic tendencies. Vera Farmiga manages to forge through any prescribed traits as Tony’s mother, a relationship the series oft addressed, and Leslie Odom Jr. delivers one of the film’s finest performances as Harold McBrayer, an associate of Dickie’s whose refusal to ultimately adhere to the gangster mindset foreshadows his own criminal uprising.
A series such as The Sopranos, one that ran for 86 episodes across an 8-year span, couldn’t possibly be easily projected in just one film, so Newark doesn’t entirely succeed as a singular prologue. There are more stories to tell, especially as this film only gives us the slightest hint at Tony’s mobster inclinations. Despite this feeling somewhat unfinished however, it nonetheless should satisfy the fans and satiate the unversed.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Many Saints of Newark is screening in Australian theatres from November 4th, 2021.