A quartet of Scottish fisherman grapple with the terrible cost of human trafficking in morally resonant, deeply-felt drama "True North," from thesp-turned-helmer Steve Hudson. Pic benefits from solid acting and visceral lensing in the churning North Sea and could sail those twin virtues to fest berths, modest arthouse life and niche ancillary presence.

A quartet of Scottish fisherman grapple with the terrible cost of human trafficking in morally resonant, deeply-felt drama “True North,” from London-born, German-based thesp-turned-helmer Steve Hudson. Though determinedly downbeat, pic benefits from solid acting and visceral lensing in the churning North Sea and could sail those twin virtues to fest berths, modest arthouse life and niche ancillary presence.

After another unsuccessful fishing run from Britain, the Scottish trawler Providence docks in Ostend, Belgium. Desperate to pull his skipper father (Gary Lewis) out of looming debt prior to assuming control of the boat, first mate Sean (Martin Compston) follows a lead from happy-go-lucky deckhand Riley (Peter Mullan) and strikes a lucrative deal with a shady businessman (German vet Hark Bohm) to smuggle some 20 Chinese immigrants in the forward cargo hold during their return trip. In a decision that will prove fateful, Sean decides to hide the presence of the refugees from not only the ship’s cook (Steven Robertson), but from his father as well.

Back at sea, Riley is given the task of looking after the immigrants, which seems to consist primarily of emptying the waste bucket in the middle of the night. Unbeknownst to any of the men, 12-year-old Su Li (Angel Li) slips away from the group and hides in the engine room, emerging only to pilfer food from the galley, which she pays for by leaving Chinese currency stashed among the stores.

When the skipper, who still doesn’t know about the immigrants, decides to zigzag across the North Sea in pursuit of fish and Su Li is discovered, Sean’s plans take a series of disastrous turns as deteriorating conditions prompt ghastly choices.

Though he relies too much on distracting cross-cutting during key passages, helmer-scribe Hudson exhibits a sure hand in his directing debut. His script gives each seaman provocative character traits that lead to surprising clashes, and what looks to be a foolhardy decision to shoot on a relatively small boat on the high seas pays huge dividends in storm-set sequences of terrifying power.

Cast exhibits a solid interplay based on previous work together: Hudson met Lewis and Compston (who debuted in Ken Loach’s “Sweet Sixteen”) when all three worked on Icelandic pic “Niceland,” while Lewis and Mullan have worked together frequently. Latter is particularly fearless, as his jovial yet ultimately craven Riley embraces life enough to cavort in a dockside brothel but shrinks away from more serious human concerns. Inevitably thick Scottish brogues don’t hinder the action.

Tech credits are tops under clearly grueling conditions. Five weeks of pic’s seven-week shoot was set onboard the trawler, with most of balance on German sets repping the below-decks area.

True North

Ireland-Germany-U.K.

Production

An Ariel Films (Germany)/Pictorian Pictures, Makar Prods. (U.K.)/Samson Films (Ireland) production. (International sales: Beyond Films, London.) Produced by Sonja Ewers, Benjamina Mirnik, Eddie Dick, David Collins. Executive producers, David M. Thompson, Helmut Breuer, Claire Chapman, Jamie Laurenson. Directed, written by Steve Hudson.

Crew

Camera (color), Peter Robertson; editor, Andrea Mertens; music, Edmund Butt; production designers, John Hand, Bettina Schmidt; costume designer, Carole Millar; sound (Dolby Digital/THX), Guido Zettier; special effects supervisor, Brendan Byrne. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Discovery), Sept. 12, 2006. Running time: 96 MIN.

Cast

With: Peter Mullan, Gary Lewis, Martin Compston, Steven Robertson, Angel Li, Hark Bohm.
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