‘Shantaram’ Review: Charlie Hunnam in Apple TV+’s Ambitious Mess of an Adaptation

If you enjoy watching talented actors situated in foreign lands, drenched in cosmetically applied sweat, opining in borderline-comical accents about second chances, Apple TV+’s Shantaram is likely to be your favorite new show of the fall.

Breathlessly awaited for nearly two decades by countless people who bought Gregory David Roberts’ epic tome to read on an airplane but never quite finished it, Shantaram has the insufferable trappings of yet another white savior story about a damaged guy whose quest for self-actualization leads him to an exotic place where superficial lessons about a previously unknown spiritual system help him and basically nobody else around him. OK, it doesn’t just have the trappings of one of those stories. It is one of those stories.

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Like Roberts’ book, though, Shantaram is maybe five percent fictionalized memoir and the rest a pastiche of every muscular novel of character-driven transformation ever written, from Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo to James Clavell. Shantaram is so packed with characters and storylines that almost everybody will find two or three threads that entertain them, even if there are at least as many that feel rushed or over-extended in the first season of a drama that surely never fully conquers the challenges of a complicated adaptation.

Our hero begins life as Dale Conti (Charlie Hunnam), an Australian philosophy student and paramedic who winds up in jail after a detour into drugs and armed robbery. Facing accusations of being a snitch — he’s not, because although Dale may be a criminal, he’s profoundly honorable — Dale escapes from prison, secures a new passport and the name “Lindsay Ford” and heads to India. In Bombay (Mumbai, today), Lin befriends hustling tour guide Prabhu (Shubham Saraf) and becomes acquainted with a quirky local bar populated by various expats, some looking for wealth, some for enlightenment and all just hoping to blend into the melting pot of 1982 Bombay.

His new allies — not quite friends — include wily fixer Didier (Vincent Perez), fiery prostitute and junkie Lisa (Elektra Kilbey), and the enigmatic Karla (Antonia Desplat), whose thoroughly perplexing past, nationality and occupation contribute to Lin falling instantly in love with her.

In very little time, Lin’s bad luck takes him to one of Bombay’s slums and attracts the attention of smooth-talking gangster Khader Khan (Alexander Siddig), who views the repentant outsider as either a son or a pawn or an opportunity to make people like me compare the plot of Shantaram to Shogun.

Oh and yes, back in Australia, there’s a grouchy detective (David Field’s Nightingale) determined to bring Lin to justice no matter the cost or the similarities to Les Miserables.

I’ve barely touched on all the characters and storylines that creators Eric Warren Singer and Steve Lightfoot — Lightfoot replaced Singer as showrunner and nobody will ever be able to parse who did what or when — have to wrangle. Suffice it to say they don’t wrangle so much as throw a bunch of things on-screen, some of which are pleasing to the eye and generally engaging. At 12 hour-long episodes that progress only partway through the book, the first season of Shantaram is Dickensian in its colorful excess and Dickensian in that somebody somewhere must have been convinced they were being paid on a per-installment basis. The only thing more repetitive than Lin’s cycle of mini-redemptions and mini-downfalls is the frequency with which he finds himself disrobing, which is either done to remind viewers that our hero is scarred on the outside as well as the inside or to remind viewers that Lin (or Charlie Hunnam) is as dedicated to his outer core as his inner.

Cynicism about his beefcake treatment aside, Hunnam is really excellent in a story of tormented fish-out-of-water dignity that feels like an extension of his big-screen work in The Lost City of Z, Papillon and Triple Frontier. Hunnam’s patented soulful hunkiness — why will nobody ever give him a vehicle that utilizes his Undeclared comic timing? — is put to the test by generally awful narration, laden with redundant thematic noodling and the occasional precious reminder that whether or not Lin is on a path to betterment, he’s making everything consistently worse for the people around him. Those little notes of awareness keep Shantaram from ever becoming a full-on colonialist nightmare, a little bit like how Tokyo Vice was saved by everybody just acknowledging that Ansel Elgort’s character was the least interesting person in an interesting city.

Normally, I’d call Hunnam to task for an Aussie accent that wanes more than it waxes, but it’s an appropriate match for a series and a world in which almost everybody is unplaceable, both in nationality and in philosophical positioning. Nobody is exactly sure where Karla or Lisa or even Khader Khan is actually from, which makes Desplat, Kilbey and Siddig immune to visits from the accent police (see also Gabrielle Scharnitzky’s fearsome brothel owner Madame Zhou). Desplat and Siddig keep their characters effectively inscrutable, embodying both Eve and the serpent as figures luring Lin in this unlikely Eden that he’s been cast into rather than cast out from. Kilbey, who looks like a branch off of a January Jones/Margot Robbie family tree, has an electric — first-name pun intended — screen presence and brings so much unpredictable energy to her scenes that I quickly stopped caring that the writing for the character is dismal.

It also takes a while for the writers to find any humanity beyond caricature in Saraf’s fast-talking Prabhu — there’s literally a mini-arc in which Prabhu introduces Lin to Indian food and Lin gets the runs — but around the halfway point in the season, a romance blooms between Prabhu and Rachel Kamath’s Parvati. Their relationship becomes a note of actual sweetness in a show that too often treats its characters like moving pieces on a karmic chessboard instead of humans. This becomes a problem in the season’s last few episodes, when Lin goes from the story’s clear protagonist to having to share almost equal time with lackluster storylines relating to Lisa’s Italian pimps and an escalating gangland war in which too many of the figures are barely one-dimensional.

The season’s climax is chaotic enough to undo a lot of the effort the creative team put into adding nuance to this world, again in the name of keeping Shantaram from falling entirely into a stale and voyeuristic genre. Bharat Nalluri, who directed the season’s first three episodes, attempts to provide some grounding to settings that were filmed generally on location in India if not actually in Mumbai. The script tries working in several languages and dialects to give the native characters real voices and real vernacular, as much as possible making the shantytown of Sagar Wada more a community of humans than an expansive place in which nameless people poop and fish from the same fetid puddles, though there’s some of that.

The number of potential Shantaram adaptations that have been developed over the years is astronomical. I don’t lament missing out on Shantaram as a star vehicle for Johnny Depp, but I definitely feel bad about Mira Nair not getting to direct. I can see why 900+ pages were tough to pack into two hours. What we ended up with is a decently acted, handsomely produced, generally disjointed and insufficiently curated sprawl — not bad but far from an epic triumph.

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