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‘Safe Harbour’ Review: Hulu Drama Is an Engrossing Story of Refugees, Privilege, and Regret that Shows the Danger of Isolation

This four-part Australian import looks at two families dealing with the aftermath of a fateful decision.

SAFE HARBOUR - Episode 1 - In the middle of the Timor Sea, five Australians on a yacht try to help a boatload of asylum seekers by towing them. When the rope is cut between them, and seven people die as a result, it sets up a mystery that reignites several years later, when they meet again. Zahra Al-Bayati (Nicole Chamoun), Yasmeen Al-Bayati (Maha Riad) and Ismail Al-Bayati (Hazem Shammas) shown. (Photo by: Vince Valitutti/Hulu)

“Safe Harbour”

Vince Valitutti/Hulu

Safe Harbour” wastes no time setting up the parallel tracks for its story. In 2013, a group of leisurely yacht cruisers encounter a refugee ship in open waters off the coast of Australia. After five years and no contact during the intervening time, circumstances bring select inhabitants of both vessels into each other’s orbits again, this time back on land.

Now available on Hulu after premiering in Australia this past spring, this setup could easily veer into an empty attempt at an uplifting tale of human connection or, on the other hand, into an overly dark tale of anger and revenge. Instead, “Safe Harbour” takes a third direction: a mystery unfolding in four acts, where the importance of the final answer gives way to better understanding of how guilt and forgiveness can be powerful forces when set in opposition.

In the present, when Ismail Al-Bayati (Hazem Shammas) picks up Ryan Gallagher (Ewen Leslie), one of the five vacationers, as a cab passenger, it starts a great unfurling that exposes things kept hidden by a number of people involved. When Ryan’s attempt at hospitality goes awry, the reunion dinner between the two families ends up challenging assumptions that everyone on the yacht had made about the fateful night five years prior. In carefully controlled flashbacks, the series reveals the details about how, why, and when the two boats left each other, as seen through different eyes.

Even as “Safe Harbour” jumps between either side of that five-year divide, it sets up some more meaningful contrasts. Some on the yacht see this new revisiting of the past as a chance to reckon with a decision. Others, like Ryan’s wife Bree (Leeanna Walsman) see it as an imposition to be reminded of something they’d chosen to forget.

That’s a luxury that Ismail, his wife Zahra (Nicole Chamoun), and son Asad (Yazeed Daher) are not afforded, as they continue to carry the loss of their daughter. “Safe Harbour” skillfully captures the resulting feelings of helplessness from all involved. Ryan doesn’t know how to atone for the guilt he’s trying to define, and the Al-Bayati family — including Ismail’s brother Bilal (Robert Rabiah) — are unsure of what action to take to bring meaning to Yasmeen’s death. To its credit, the show doesn’t try to put those conflicting emotions on equal footing, but it does avoid setting up an oversimplified hero/villain dynamic.

SAFE HARBOUR - Episode 4 - The truth leads to a life in danger, as Ismail Ð blinded by grief Ð tries to get retribution, leading to a final confrontation and the possibility of new beginnings. Ismail Al-Bayati (Hazem Shammas) and Ryan Gallagher (Ewen Leslie) shown. (Photo by: Vince Valitutti/Hulu)

“Safe Harbour”

Vince Valitutti/Hulu

If there’s a condemnation of “Safe Harbour,” it’s in the assumption that a single action can somehow erase a memory or fill a void that’s been sitting empty for half a decade. As the different issues within families and friend groups start to multiply exponentially, it becomes evident these are not questions to be solved. When characters like Bilal or Ryan’s co-worker and co-passenger Damien (Joel Jackson) place a genuine interest in understanding over a desire to erase long-held regret, it leads to a more complex portrait.

When the aftermath of that night on the Timor Sea gives way to disputes amongst both families, it doesn’t happen purely out of a need to escalate drama. Most of the complications that the yacht-goers face come from an inability to process being a part of something so momentous. They begin to acknowledge that their actions may have led to the death of multiple people who needed their assistance.

“Safe Harbour” excels at highlighting a constant sense of tension, but there are moments when the need to escalate emotions break the show free from its carefully laid groundwork. In a way, Stephen Rae’s score is a perfect mirror to the show around it. When the action turns to a mournful bit of self-reflexion, the clarinet-piano combo captures all of the dissonant emotion that these individuals are trying to work through. During the occasional sequence when the stakes are raised from an already impossible highpoint, the throbbing electronic hum underscores moments when the natural drama of the situation is artificially enhanced (which seem particularly excessive after the fantastic opening credits set an ominous baseline for the dread and uncertainty to follow).

But through Glendyn Ivin’s direction and scripts from Belinda Chayko, Matt Cameron, and Phil Enchelmaier, “Safe Harbour” is a sharp story about the short- and long-term consequences of miscommunication. The fractured timelines are disorienting not because information is contradicted, but because it illuminates how much one person can miss from the overall picture. As different characters want to be sheltered from their own memories, it speaks to the dangers of isolation on both a personal and international scale.

This isn’t a self-contained struggle, as these revelations quickly carry legal ramifications. Still, “Safe Harbour” wisely avoids a lengthy courtroom element. This is a tale of accountability and forgiveness in the ways that can’t be officially adjudicated. It’s a look at what emotions and experiences can’t be shared, but are still necessary to understand.

Grade: B+

“Safe Harbour” is now available to stream on Hulu. 

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