Not an original complaint, necessarily, but why is everything so long these days? At the end of Shantaram – after 11 hours of lovingly-crafted but painstakingly slow television – we learn that this isn’t even the end of the story we’ve spent half a day watching. There’s more TV coming – probably of about the same length as the TV you’ve just seen. It’s like scaling Everest and then seeing a sign at the very peak that says, ‘Oops – nearly there.’
Shantaram, which stars Charlie Hunnam in its lead role, is the Apple TV+ adaptation of the novel of the same name by Gregory David Roberts. Arguably an autobiography, the book is about a man who commits armed robberies to fund a heroin addiction and then, having escaped prison in Australia, flees to Mumbai to start afresh. Rather than keeping his head down, however, Lin – the fake name the protagonist adopts, along with his passport – is embroiled in violence and gang warfare.
As soon as Hunnam’s voiceover begins and you can’t tell which accent he’s speaking in, we’re off to a shaky start. It’s Australian, you soon realise, and you try to tune your ear accordingly. Consequently, Shantaram is only ever as good as Hunnam’s accent and acting. Unfortunately, neither are worth writing home from Mumbai about. There’s an unnerving, almost psychopathic blankness to Hunnam’s Lin, who is a virtuous character in an assortment of Indian villains – dangerous white saviour territory out of which Shantaram never really digs itself.
The story is propulsive and involves a range of intriguing and shady characters: the moment he arrives, Lin meets Prabhu (Shubham Saraf), a devoted and charming guide who will become his best friend; he falls in love with Karla (Antonia Desplat), a French woman mixed up in all sorts of trouble; before long he is doing deals with local gangster Khader Khan (Alexander Siddig); and he attracts unwanted journalistic attention when he becomes a kind of doctor for the locals. The ingredients for an interesting story are there but something is off throughout: the slightly underwhelming acting; the frustratingly slow pace; Hunnam’s infuriatingly zen persona, like a Gandalf of the slums.
The scripts are also guilty of the occasional bit of stinky dialogue – “I was complacent in my love for him, and my assumption that he loved me most” is not something any human being would say – and the nagging sensation that something profound is often being strained for but never quite attained. The scale of the show proves that ambition is not the issue here, but when some of the foundations feel shaky, you don’t necessarily feel comfortable climbing up and taking in the view.
Some of the problems with Shantaram would have been solved by halving its runtime (episodes often clock in at 57 minutes) but, despite some terrific set pieces and a filming setup whose elaborate construction clearly required a lot of love, it’s just a little too difficult to fully invest in the action in front of you.
‘Shantaram’ premieres on Apple TV+ on October 14