Shantaram review – Eat Pray Love with added hunk? Disappointingly not

Shantaram (Apple TV+) is an adaptation of Gregory David Roberts’ weighty 2003 novel of self-discovery. I admit that I was expecting a sort of Eat Pray Love, with added hunk. It turns out to be a bit of a thriller, with a smattering of morality lessons, though its main moral is that if there’s any chance for star Charlie Hunnam to have a conversation after having taken off his top, or being in the process of taking it off, then yes, he will do it.

It is the early 1980s and Hunnam is Dale, an inmate in an Australian prison that looks very much like an advert for Diesel jeans, or a Calvin Klein campaign – CK: Incarceration. He isn’t a grass, but the rest of the inmates think he is, so he fears for his life. He can’t trust the authorities, for reasons that are drip-fed throughout, so he plots a daring escape. Eventually he winds up in Mumbai, then called Bombay. Along the way, he meets various characters who speak in inspirational quotes, such as: “You haven’t escaped anything unless you go on to something.” It is clearly catching. By the end of the opening episode, Dale, under the alias Lin (the name on his false passport), says: “I guess I need to be running towards something. Not away from it.” I can see it laid out in a lovely font across a picture of a sunrise already.

There’s a touch of The Serpent to this show, particularly its period detail and the way it slinks around the criminal underworld. (I didn’t love The Serpent, but this makes that look like The Sopranos.) In the city’s unofficial “free zone”, a bar named Ronaldo’s, all sorts of wheeling and dealing takes place. Dale/Lin falls in with the fast-moving crowd of “hookers, dealers, gangsters and gamblers” who frequent the place, such as Lisa, a sex worker who is “somehow sad and sexy as hell, all at the same time”. Sexy and sad? Who says women can’t multitask?

Then the KGB gets involved, and some other criminals, and Dale/Lin ends up on the run from being on the run, allowing him plenty of moments in which he must take his shirt off for a wash, perhaps for another topless chat. For a man travelling light, he is always getting changed.

One of the qualities that endears Dale/Lin to his new friends is his ability to do accents; it is useful to have him on hand to impersonate, say, an employee of the US embassy when trying to break an American citizen out of an illegal brothel. This is somewhat ironic, as Hunnam’s Australian twang, a constant thanks to an incessant voiceover, is mesmerising in its reach, if not quite its execution. It sounds like an American doing an impression of an Irishman doing an impression of an Australian. He speaks as if his sentences all meet a sudden slope; his words soar skywards and find themselves in odd places, like a snowboarder on a halfpipe, in and up, before flying off the edge. His American accent is very convincing.

After launching with a run of slightly stodgy series – good-looking shows that seemed afraid to be anything other than fine – Apple TV+ is finding its voice with more ambitious and inventive television such as Severance and Bad Sisters. Shantaram is a looker, and the thriller it plants at the heart of the action, just before the first episode comes to an end, has moments of intrigue. It knows how to put together a gripping scene and the prison escape is suitably tense. But barely any of the characters feel authentic. They all seem to exist simply for Dale’s enrichment. It starts to seem ungenerous and demanding. In the end, it loses confidence with even its own voice. Eventually, Dale has to explain that what has just happened is important; he says the events we have just seen will “change everyone’s lives for ever”. When a show has to promise its audience that it is about to get exciting, it’s not doing a very good job of making that happen.