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Nuanced Apple TV Drama Gives Charlie Hunnam A Rich Acting Platform

Jan 8, 2023

Apple TV just doesn’t seem to care as much as the others about the bottom line. They’re willing to drop a small fortune on shows that simply aren’t designed to break out in a way that would attract a mass audience. Every once in a while, there will be a “Ted Lasso” or a “Severance,” but most of their dramas are very expensive and very under-seen. Watching the strong new drama “Shantaram,” premiering on October 14, it’s hard not to be stunned by the scope of it all, shooting on location with a large cast that’s telling a story that unfolds across multiple subplots. Who is this for? While it would be nice to think that shows that are simply rich in character detail can find an audience, the truth is that there’s no hook here to really grab people and stand out in an increasingly crowded field. And again, it’s a story of a white man finding himself in a non-white country, a tale that has been told often, including just this year in “Tokyo Vice.” Will it be enough that “Shantaram” is well-made television from top to bottom, a character study that’s richly told and nuanced in its detail? The big question is if there’s an audience for that alone in the era of High Concept TV.
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“Shantaram” is a story about second chances and how much regret and grief we carry from one chapter of our life into the next. It’s also what could be called a Butterfly Effect Drama, one of those stories that emphasizes how one action ripples into the next, allowing its characters and viewers to question if a bad act can be overcome by the good acts that result from it. Based loosely on the novel by Gregory David Roberts (which was based loosely on his own life), “Shantaram” is a complex drama, one that trusts its audience to be patient with a story that unfolds over 12 long hours, ending in a way that sets up future seasons without closing many of its narrative loops. Are modern streaming subscribers patient enough for a show like “Shantaram”?
“Sons of Anarchy” star Charlie Hunnam returns to TV, doing excellent work as a bank robber who escapes an Australian prison in the premiere, ultimately finding himself halfway around the world in the city of Bombay in the ‘80s. Talking the pseudonym Lin Ford, he becomes fascinated by a mysterious woman named Karla Saaranen (Antonia Desplat, daughter of the famed composer Alexandre), who asks for the new brooding tough guy’s help in getting a woman named Lisa Carter (Elektra Kilbey) out of a dangerous situation. “Shantaram” is one of those dramas in which every decision leads to another crossroads. Before Ford knows it, he’s living in the Bombay slums, taking on the role of a doctor to help the people who live there. He has a skill for negotiating with the right people, including a crime lord played by the phenomenal Alexander Siddig, to help those in need, but “Shantaram” isn’t a white savior tale as much as it’s the story of a man on the run who can’t seem to stop himself from getting attention and can’t leave those in need behind. And when a journalist suspects that there’s more to this Ford character than meets the eye, the authorities from Australia, including a cop played by the great David Field, eventually make their way to India too.
The talented Justin Kurzel (“Nitram”) directs the premiere of “Shantaram,” but he hands duties off to TV vet Iain B. MacDonald (“Preacher,” “Shameless”) for much of the first season while credited writers include Oscar nominee Eric Warren Singer (“Top Gun: Maverick”), who reportedly left the project early, and Steve Lightfoot (“Hannibal”), who took over for Singer. The writers and directors here work from a drama template that trusts its audience to follow an eclectic cast without holding their hand in the process. There’s a vastly inferior version of “Shantaram” that simply uses Lin Ford’s story as a traditional redemption arc, but this is more complex than merely giving a “good criminal” a second chance.
It helps that the show is populated with characters and performers who hold their own against or parallel to Hunnam, never turning “Shantaram” into a lesser star vehicle. Shubham Saraf plays Prabhu, Lin’s BFF in the slums, and someone who gets his own love story along the way. Elham Ehsas plays a Spaniard named Sebastian who falls for Lisa, but ends up using her in his own criminal schemes. Vincent Perez is fantastic as another ex-pat—the show deftly captures how a big city like Bombay can be a destination for people from all over the world. There are journalists, criminals, cops, and ordinary people caught up in the narrative of “Shantaram,” and it captures the kind of rich tapestry of dramatic storytelling that’s more common to literature than television.
Having said that, it’s impossible not to feel some of its length. Especially as the final episodes of the season refuse to close as many doors as they arguably should—the show literally ends the season with the words “To Be Continued…”—some may question why they spent so much time in this corner of Bombay in the ‘80s. There’s a version of “Shantaram” that achieves much of the same depth of character while also operating with a little more urgency and giving a little more than this one does in a season finale.
However, even when one is wishing that “Shantaram” would turn up the narrative heat a bit, it’s an engaging drama. There’s not a single weak performance and several very good ones (Hunnam, Siddig, and Desplat being stand-outs). It’s also a gorgeous show to look at, a program that takes place across multiple settings with a rich cultural backdrop and actual cinematic considerations like lighting, framing, and design that so many cheap streaming shows ignore. One can see the Apple money in every episode. Let’s just hope they don’t regret spending it. [B]

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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