Safe Harbour marks the fourth recent miniseries from SBS to wrap a crime around a topical social issue.
Following on from The Principal, Deep Water and Sunshine, it confronts the subject of asylum seekers head on.
Five Australians enjoying an ocean sailing adventure come face to face with an overcrowded refugee boat whose motor has broken down. It’s a stark, dramatic moment. What do you do when there are literally dozens of helpless people pleading for assistance -especially when it could endanger your own family?
The ship’s captain Ryan (Ewen Leslie) suddenly finds himself torn between his moral obligations and the pressure of his wife Bree (Leanna Walsman) and friends to head back to Australian waters for help.
“Do you want stay and help or go and get help from somewhere else?” asks lawyer Helen (Jacqueline McKenzie).
But for Ismael (Hazem Shammas), whose small children are weak from the arduous journey, Ryan’s decision could mean life or death….
The structure of Belinda Chayko’s script is non-linear, with various flashbacks and flash-forwards that make it clear Ismael’s family eventually made it to Brisbane. There he finds Ryan five years later when he steps into his cab. The missing chapters and subsequent secrets will unravel over the course of four episodes.
Ryan is overjoyed that Ismael has survived, his Australian openness extends to a Sunday BBQ invitation between their 2 families. But whilst Isamel is looking for answers, his wife Zahra (Nicole Chamoun) is full of bitterness. It’s clear that something much darker occurred at sea and it is rising up from the surface like an unstoppable force…
Also added to the mix is the mysterious absence of Damien (Joel Jackson), whose life did a U-turn after the ocean incident, and two teens from diametrically-opposed families who appear to be headed for forbidden love.
Set against a summery Brisbane backdrop, the drama swings between charmed lives in airy, Queenslander houses and the confines of an extended family struggling to carve out an existence in a small flat and poorly paid jobs.
Ewen Leslie, following on from his strong performance in Top of the Lake: China Girl, leads a fine ensemble, with Hazem Shammas poignantly representing a man seeking closure.
Director Glendyn Ivin (Seven Types of Ambiguity, The Beautiful Lie, Puberty Blues, Beaconsfield) again draws upon his wondrous sense of visual. There are artistic, poetic shots amid the unease of the foreground drama.
Personally I would have welcomed more up-front exploitation of the moral choices faced by the Australians, as a metaphor of a bigger picture. It’s been a long time since the gripping isolation of Dead Calm has been challenged, or even complemented, on screen. SBS dramas have a tendency to go straight for the emotion of a social issue, and here there was a chance to play the action card a little longer.
That said, this is a strong opening chapter of a bold, creative exercise. Given SBS Drama is so lean on the output side, how lucky we are they continue to uphold an excellent standard.
Safe Harbour premieres 8:30pm Wednesday on SBS.