Review: Safe Home on SBS

Safe Home is a deftly handled drama about the family violence system in Victoria, told through the eyes of the people it helps and the people it leaves behind.

Safe Home is not easy viewing. SBS’s latest home grown drama tackles the subject of family violence in unflinching fashion, refusing to shy away from the realities of one of society’s most brutal and depressing crimes. Weaving in the struggles of a small legal centre, the stories of the victims, and a mysterious death that may just be murder, it’s a series that demands your full attention. For some it might be hard to take.

Phoebe (Aisha Dee) is starting work at a Melbourne family violence centre that’s underfunded, understaffed and under serious pressure from looming Federal government funding cuts. Previously she worked at a prestigious law firm, where she dealt with a sleazy, self-righteous boss (David Roberts) who felt his record of supporting women in the workplace gave him a green light to make inappropriate comments to female interns.

And in the not-too-distant future, a distraught Phoebe is being interviewed by police about a death that she – at the very least – feels responsible for. She calls it a murder: who died and how is the mystery at the series’ heart, even if it’s mostly kept on the backburner at first.

No stone unturned

The storytelling at first is loose and non-linear, the focus on peeling away layers over driving forward the plot. Everywhere Phoebe looks, appearances can be deceiving, for good or ill. On her first day at the centre she makes a mistake that allows an abuser into a secure area of a court building. When she was warned about a man in a waiting area, she assumed it was the rough looking tradie that she had to be careful of. Later episodes feature more subtle threats.

Phoebe is new to this world, so her new workmates – notably the somewhat scary Jenny (Mabel Li) and boss Eve (Virigina Gay) – have to spell things out. Dropping grim facts and statistics into conversation, or explaining why it’s not called ‘domestic violence’ (at least not in Victoria), isn’t always subtle, but there’s a big difference between jargon packed infodumps that push forward a plot and real-world information about an important topic. If you’ve watched this far, you’re going to want to know more.

Phoebe and Eve. Image: SBS

Ironically considering the nature of Safe Home, in one sequence we’re shown how any positive media coverage of their service only makes their job harder. The more people who see their contact details, the more people who get in touch for help – and suddenly the threat of budget cuts hanging over them means so much more, as the depth of need in the community is made clear.

Stuck in the system

We also see the system through the eyes of those needing help, begining with Di (Janet Andrewartha). She lives on an isolated farm with her husband of 25 years (Mark Mitchenson) and the walls are closing in. She’s out shopping but her card doesn’t work; he’s reported it missing. He’s told her boss she won’t be coming into work any more. He’s finished up teaching so he’ll be spending more time at home. Each moment seems reasonable enough; they all build up to a stomach-churning dread.

Created and written by playwright and screenwriter Anna Barnes, this is based on Barnes’ experience working at a number of community legal centres. Safe Home doesn’t shy away from the emotional costs on both sides of the system. We see people who have held up under unbelievable pressure, who fracture when faced with a kind word.

Melbourne the Unforgiving

Phoebe isn’t above reproach. Cheating on a quiz to impress her new workmates is one thing; there’s another kind of cheating she’s involved in that casts a longer shadow. Did she leave her old job because she wanted to make a real difference, or was there a more personal reason that had her heading for the door?

At times the raw nature of family violence threatens to overwhelm the more traditional drama, but Phoebe’s viewpoint is a strong one, bringing wider systemic social problems down to a very human level. It’s a tough world she’s found herself in – Melbourne has rarely looked so cold and unforgiving, with regular inserts of chilly skyscrapers looming against the night sky – and it soon becomes clear that it’s a world that extends well into her own.

Safe Home isn’t comfortable or safe entertainment. With subject matter like this it shouldn’t be. If good drama is all about what’s at stake, this is one of the best Australian dramas of the year.

Rated M.

Episodes 1&2 of Safe Home are currently available to view on SBS On Demand; episodes 3&4 will air on SBS this Thursday at 8.30pm

In Australia, the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732

Anthony Morris is a freelance film and television writer. He’s been a regular contributor to The Big Issue, Empire Magazine, Junkee, Broadsheet, The Wheeler Centre and Forte Magazine, where he’s currently the film editor. Other publications he’s contributed to include Vice, The Vine, Kill Your Darlings (where he was their online film columnist), The Lifted Brow, Urban Walkabout and Spook Magazine. He’s the co-author of hit romantic comedy novel The Hot Guy, and he’s also written some short stories he’d rather you didn’t mention. You can follow him on Twitter @morrbeat and read some of his reviews on the blog It’s Better in the Dark.