We’ve had some good stuff coming out of Australia recently (Murder Road, Picnic At Hanging Rock et al), and now we have another series worthy of consideration, placed in the prime BBC Four, Saturday-night crimey wimey slot.
Four-part Safe Harbour ruffled many feathers in its home country when it was released last year. It made headlines, provoked much debate and almost caused a national existential crisis.
It constantly amazes and intrigues me how crime drama can act as such an effective vehicle to not only entertain but also to examine the socio-political landscape. The Scandinavians and Nordics have their beloved ‘second story’, but Safe Harbour seems in a different league – it presents us with a moral dilemma so excruciating I found myself gnashing my teeth within the first 15 minutes.
It all started serenely enough. There was no music, just the strange sound of silence on the ocean. A group of middle-class Aussies were on a sailing trip on the blissful Timor Sea, catching fish and kicking back. Their blissed-out reverie was interrupted when another boat loomed into view – it was a vessel packed with migrants screaming for help. The leader of The Group was Ryan (Ewen Leslie, who we last saw in The Cry and is always good to watch), and it was suddenly confronted with a dilemma – what to do? Do they leave them? Do they help them? And, if so, how do they help them? Tow them? Call the authorities?
The action was cleverly intercut with scenes from the present day (which turned out to be five years later), where one of the migrants, Ismail, picked up Ryan in his taxi. Soon, Ryan invited Ismail and his family around to his house for a barbecue. Ryan was overjoyed that they had made it to Australia.
Instantly it made you think, ‘hold on… if Ryan didn’t know the family had made it to Australia, something must have happened at sea, right?’
The barbie turned out to be the barbie from hell. It laid bare stark contrasts – Ryan’s family was affluent and had a pool in the garden, while Ismail and his family were not. And they had an axe to grind – as Ismail explained to his wife that they were invited to the house, she was aghast. How could you accept, she screamed. I want to see what they have to say for themselves, he reploed.
If we didn’t know it already, something very bad happened at sea, but we hadn’t seen it yet. It was an expert way to build suspense.
As Ryan told stories about finding a python while he was renovating his kitchen, it all kicked off. Zahra, Ismail’s wife, could not hold it in any longer – she screamed at them over the table that when they cut them loose, seven people died, including their daughter Yasmeen. How could they just sit there and laugh?
And then much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. Ryan and the rest of the group had a meeting with The Group and suddenly the mystery presented itself – they towed them but turned back to Indonesia, but the ropes were cut. Did one of the group do it? If so, who? If so, why?
So what about The Group, now thrust into a tight spot? Helen was a lawyer who was in line for a promotion to the bench, Ryan and wife Bree made it big with their business and their nice home, Olivia worked with Bree and was Damien’s partner, and Damien, well, was missing. Each of them had a lot to lose, and a lot of reasons to cover something up.
Now the group were asking some key questions: why didn’t they report the incident to the authorities? Were they in the wrong? Did they need to feel guilt over what happened?
And what about the Al-Bayatis? It turned out Ismail has been tracking down The Group for several months and wanted an eye-for-eye-style revenge, and Bilal, his brother, was a flinty-eyed ex-soldier.
So far, Safe Harbour was playing out to be a kind of a noir, mixed in with a tale of chase and revenge. And I was liking it very much – right from the premise and the performances to the soundtrack, which was eerily effective.
Episode two saw actions beget consequences. Ismail decided to tell the police what had happened, and the Feds were brought in to investigate the crime against The Group. That’s when everything started to fall apart. As each member was interviewed, the less they trusted each other and paranoia set in: Ryan was convinced everyone was against, Damien, who had returned from his round-the-world trip, refused council, Olivia hated Damien and Bree was convinced they had nothing to apologise for.
At the same time, things were happening in the Al-Bayati family, too. Zahra (a fantastic performance from Nicole Chamoun) was pregnant but contemplating a termination, and Ismail was still bent on wreaking revenge. But Bilal was turning out to be an interesting character, too – there was a great scene when he was in a roadside cafe talking to an Australian woman, who purred as he spoke Arabic. Speak to me more in Arabic, she said. Not knowing what he was saying, Bilal told her the story of his time in the Iraqi army and how his wife was raped and murdered after the Allied forces left them to fend for themselves. It was powerful stuff and worked on many different levels.
And yet, by the end of the episode, Bilal became the main suspect – did he cut the rope of the dinghy?
This mystery was kept bubbling nicely and, crucially, was brilliantly balanced with the paranoia of The Group, their personal relationships (which was falling apart) and that of the Al-Bayatis. And that’s what I liked about Safe Harbour – it didn’t kowtow to racial or cultural stereotypes. They were two families and groups of people who had suffered trauma, some worse than others, and now it was time to deal and process the fallout, no matter what race, religion or colour. However, giving The Group a moral dilemma so stark and so tough, it made you examine your own feelings towards migrants and refugees, but never in a forced or overbearing way.
Anything that makes us think constructively about this subject is a good thing, in my books.