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The Many Saints Of Newark

"Sopranos enthusiasts will shiver with delight"

★★★★ - EMPIRE 

- In 1967, the Moltisanti family experience turbulence, partly due to racially motivated riots, partly due to off-the-rails criminal activity. Meanwhile, young Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini) attends school while feeling the pull of a shadier lifestyle.

David Chase is the capo of curveballs. Viewers of The Sopranos tuning in for thrilling Mafioso bloodletting were regularly greeted with artsy dream sequences, existential riffs and scenes involving ducks (though there was just enough thrilling Mafioso bloodletting too to keep them coming back). And anyone stumping up cash for The Many Saints Of Newark, the showrunner-turned-film-writer’s long-awaited return to the bloody streets of New Jersey, may well be in for a surprise too. For rather than the Phantom Menace-style Tony Soprano origin story that the marketing for the film seems to promise, this prequel is something far odder and richer. In other words, far more David Chase.

No, we don’t find out how teenage Tony first acquired a taste for gabagool, or see him don a crumpled dressing gown for the first time (though we do get a bit more insight into his interest in patio furniture). Michael Gandolfini — son of James — is uncanny as the future crime boss, echoing his father’s iconic performance to perfection while adding notes of innocence and fragility. But this isn’t the Tony show; that stuff is largely left to the third act. Instead, the film digs into the lives of all-new characters, who fortunately make for compelling company.

There’s Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), the hitherto unseen father of The Sopranos’ Christopher (Michael Imperioli has a presence in this film that will please fans of both the HBO show and Sunset Boulevard). There’s Guiseppina Bruno (Michela De Rossi, sensational), and the sour-faced ‘Hollywood Dick’ (Ray Liotta), with whom she begins an immediately unhappy marriage. Finally, there’s Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr), a numbers runner keen on doing business with the ‘family’. The latter, in particular, feels like a fresh and welcome addition to this world: Black characters were only glimpsed on the fringes of The Sopranos. But here, weaving the action into real history — the Newark race riots of 1967 — Chase provides a new perspective and an unvarnished look at a tempestuous time. Even if McBrayer does fade too much out of the narrative as the movie turns its attention towards Tony.

There’s a lot going on in The Many Saints Of Newark, a film stuffed with characters, period music cues and dialogue, and not all of it lands. There’s a development involving Liotta’s character that feels straight out of a telenovela, while some of the plot strands feel undernourished as the film whirls its many plates. But this is clearly a project that Chase has obsessed about for years: rich detail abounds, as well as sly nods to what will unfold decades on. When Tony’s mother Livia (a perfectly ice-cold Vera Farmiga) faces off against a school therapist, or baby Christopher bursts into tears as Tony approaches, Sopranos enthusiasts will shiver with delight. For anyone else, this makes for a satisfying standalone, about a bunch of bad men and a “little fat kid” discovering he has a taste for misdeeds.

A busier proposition than its HBO forefather, this sets up more than it can pay off. But it does manage to balance fan-service with plenty of rich, original, complex material. Bada? Bing.

- Nick De Semlyen, EMPIRE 

The Many Saints Of Newark is now playing at Light House Petone & Cuba!

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