Part of what made The Sopranos such a rich and engrossing show was the generational detail concocted by David Chase and his team of excellent writers. Through references to “years ago” – namely the exploits of Dickie Moltisanti and Johnny Boy Soprano – we got an idea of Tony Soprano and the origins of his personal and criminal families.
The lengthy flashback sequences did some of the narrative legwork for this character detail, especially in Down Neck, the seventh episode of season one. But much of the family tapestry was told through dialogue. With Many Saints, Chase depicts the moments that were described to us, from Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal) shooting Livia’s (Vera Farmiga) beehive hairdo to the whacking of Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola).
These references are ostensibly part of Tony Soprano’s coming of age narrative, yet while we do see a young Tony (Michael Gandolfini) grow from child to adolescent, far more time is given to the look and feel of mob life in the 1960s and ‘70s. In short, it is a time capsule.
Many familiar faces are reimagined and reinterpreted. As Dickie Moltisanti, Alessandro Nivola has a gruff charm that fits with Tony’s revered memories of him in the show. Of course, Dickie is a murderer and a crook yet he has an emotional depth that keeps us invested, not unlike James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. The strength of Nivola’s performance is important, for Moltisanti is effectively the film’s lead character.
The rest of the characters feel like passing imitations, uncanny yet all too brief. The best is Vera Farmiga’s turn as Livia Soprano, Tony’s vile mother. She must have studied Nancy Marchand’s performance, for she perfectly captures that hateful spectrum of anger, self-pity and sociopathic lack of empathy. Then there’s a young Junior, played by Corey Stoll. You can see the likeness, but the performance doesn’t go far beyond repeated use of, “Sister’s C**t!”, Junior’s favourite expletive. It is unfortunate that such an important figure from the series is neglected here.
Other cameos include Tony’s future soldiers, a young Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnusson) and Silvio Dante (John Magaro). Magaro is unmistakable, embodying Steven Van Zandt’s almost Dick Tracy-like mannerisms. Magnusson’s job is harder and his likeness not so great, yet he captures split-second facial expressions that seal his authenticity. All of these characterisations come together well and are complemented by the period detailing -but there is a problem with Tony Soprano.
Michael Gandolfini has proven himself to be a capable actor, yet the young man in The Many Saints of Newark bears little resemblance to his father’s character in The Sopranos. Awkward and softly spoken, there’s little fire in his belly. We see flashes of delinquency, but Gandolfini just doesn’t have that fiery charisma. Most notably, he doesn’t even have the strong New Jersey accent. Now, Gandolfini spoke to Rotten Tomatoes about how he was exploring Tony’s ‘sensitivity and nerdiness’, yet in a film that recreates characters that we know so well, his performance does not quite fit in.
However, if one is to be charitable, the problem here may not be Gandolfini’s performance but the period of Tony’s life that is depicted. At that age, perhaps Tony really was that sensitive and nerdy. Instead of visiting his mid-adolescence, we should have seen his young adulthood. We should have seen the formative experiences of Tony Soprano, the mobster and murderer. Namely, we should have seen the heist of “Feech” La Manna’s card game and the Willie Overall hit, the events that “made” Tony. Instead, we get a messy narrative about an Italian mistress and an African American gang war, which does not answer the tagline, “Who made Tony Soprano”.