Shantaram Review: Charlie Hunnam, Heroic Fugitive, Takes India

“Bombay felt exhilaratingly free, a place where everyone started fresh.” This is Lin Ford, played by Charlie Hunnam, who voices over to us about the city where he hopes to start again. Known today as Mumbai, the Indian metropolis is many things; In “Shantaram” it is the stage for a white refugee to lose himself and find himself. It’s this dynamic that tends to frustrate over the course of a long season.

Shantaram is based on the novel by Gregory David Roberts and executive produced by Steve Lightfoot. It is set in the 1980s, after Lin’s prison break. On his way out of an Australian penitentiary in the pilot, Lin, a recovering heroin addict, tries to disappear into a megacity before possibly moving on, but finds himself constantly attracted to an intriguing, possibly amoral woman named Karla (Antonia Desplat). Rooted in this sense of budding romance and a growing affection for the place and its people, Lin begins to build a life, even as he repeatedly tells us he is aware of his past – his identity as a wanted man and his knowledge that he is urgently wanted by the authorities – makes all this a vacation from reality.

There’s a certain element of a ticking clock in Lin’s anticipation of danger that lends bite and excitement to Bharat Nalluri’s skillful direction, although given the 12-hour episodes, one wishes “Shantaram’s” clock ticked a little faster. And Lin’s confessions in front of the audience can have an expatriate intoxication that will be repeated. “Drunk on whiskey and visions of my own salvation,” he tells us, “I had forgotten what I really was – a fugitive who had to remain invisible.”

A show in which a man goes into hiding on the run, or at least tries to avoid attention, might be interesting, but “Shantaram” tells a different, more complicated story – Lin, who would benefit from remaining anonymous, can’t avoid it to draw attention to yourself. The cast of Hunnam helps – the actor’s expressive face and brute charisma convey everything Lin feels, especially the pull of temptation. Hunnam from “Sons of Anarchy” and movies like “The Lost City of Z” is always considered a believable brawler who inevitably gets into trouble. It is in his performance, if not consistent in the scripts or direction of the series, that we see Lin’s commitment to demanding medical care for Indian nationals as a dance between altruism and the need to be at the center of things.

In a scene where Hunnam pushes back from being terrifying, friends compliment him for saving lives by saying things like “It’s an amazing story” and “It’s quite an amazing thing you’re doing.” ; The voiceover indicates that Lin knows the bill will likely fall due someday when he escapes from prison, but not that he finds positioning himself as the savior of the brown citizens of a town destined to he just fell. Hunnam adds an obliterating quality, an understanding that Lin is working to partially help others achieve the luster of salvation. He later says to a mentor figure (Alexander Siddig, who does a good job), “I think I want to be the man they see when they look at me, not the one I see in the mirror. I can’t do that if I let them die.” The humanitarian impulse is strong; likewise, Lin sees the people he saves primarily as people destined to experience his own journey.

The series seems less aware of this fact, amassing allies and adversaries among those whose life in Bombay is more than a casual sojourn; they all seem less real to us than Lin. A grinning journalist (Sujaya Dasgupta) plans to debunk Lin’s story and debunk him, musing to a friend with Bond villain silkiness, “If he knows I’m around, he’ll run away, and there won’t be give story. He’s not going anywhere that way.” Desplat is suitably alluring as Karla, but the character’s interactions with Lin generally don’t transcend certain perfume ad vagueness. Karla, who is involved in the city’s expat scene but too enigmatic to be well known, tells Lin at one point that she doesn’t believe in love: “I think heaven is a place where everyone is happy are because no one ever has to love anyone again. Whether her mind can be changed or not, one longs for him to move on.

This series is just the latest in a recent spate of programs about a white man starting his life anew in a foreign land; Elsewhere on Apple TV+, for example, Justin Theroux takes his family on an adventure with Mexico as the backdrop in The Mosquito Coast. But the show “Shantaram” could take a few tips from is this year’s HBO Max original Tokyo Vice. There, a white man’s journey to the Japanese capital as a newspaper reporter investigating the criminal underworld is transformative indeed, as it grants him skills he needs to do his job and survive. But the milieu can be as interesting (and usually even more so) as the person who finds himself in it. Too often in “Shantaram” Bombay is initially the site of Lin’s romantic pursuits or personal growth. And it’s a city with far too many stories to use up all the oxygen.

Shantaram premieres on Apple TV+ with its first three episodes on Friday, October 14, with new episodes arriving weekly.

https://variety.com/2022/tv/reviews/shantaram-review-charlie-hunnam-apple-tv-plus-1235394895/ Shantaram Review: Charlie Hunnam, Heroic Fugitive, Takes India

Charles Jones

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