In 1837, Swiss governess Elisabeth Laurier (Sophie Marceau) agrees to bear a child for an anonymous English landowner in return for money needed to pay her father's debts. They meet over three nights at a lonely island hotel. Despite their wish for detachment, they develop a deeply passionate connection during their lovemaking by firelight. Their feelings grow after they converse on the beach and at the hotel. Nine months later (10th of August 1838), Elisabeth gives birth to a girl, and as agreed, she gives up the child to the care of the English landowner. Over the coming years, Elisabeth never forgets her child. She begins to keep a journal of watercoloured flowers and plants, adding a page for each holiday and birthday they are apart.
The anonymous Englishman is Charles Godwin (Stephen Dillane), a landowner and struggling sheep farmer, who can barely keep the debtors of his philandering father, Lord Clare, at bay. Charles's wife, Amy Godwin, is paralysed and catatonic due to a horseriding accident. Amy's sister, Constance (Lia Williams), runs the Godwin household.
Seven years after giving up her daughter, Elisabeth manages to locate her, and she gets herself hired as the new governess for the child, who is named Louisa. Initially, Charles rejects Elisabeth, and demands that she leave immediately. However, Constance insists that he should give the new governess a month to find a new situation. Showing Elisabeth the catatonic form of his wife, Charles forces Elisabeth to swear never to reveal to Louisa or anyone the nature of their previous relationship.
Louisa (Dominique Belcourt) is a spoiled, ignorant, wilful, and foulmouthed child—unloved by anyone except her father. Though she acknowledges the father's loving relationship with his daughter, Elisabeth is appalled by the lack of control Charles exercises over the girl. He refuses to use any forms of discipline in her upbringing. Unable to keep Louisa at her lessons, Elisabeth locks the child in the classroom. When he discovers this, Charles is furious and roughly manhandles Elisabeth in an effort to extract the key to the schoolroom. While Charles wants his daughter to enjoy life as much as she can, Elisabeth is determined to teach her daughter how to behave to be loved by others, and to be educated so she can determine her own path in the world. To convince Charles to support her approach, Elisabeth promises she will never harm the girl, and whatever she does to Louisa she will also do to herself.
Outside of class, Louisa spends all of her spare time in her lakehouse, a small belvedere on the estate in the middle of a pond, which can only be reached by boat. Here, Louisa pretends she has a mother. At first, Elisabeth watches clandestinely from the boat docks while Louisa is in the lakehouse. However, when she finds out that Charles swims naked there in the morning, she begins to go to watch Charles too, leaving before he can see her. In the classroom, Elisabeth paints picture cards to teach the seven-year-old how to read. She also tells Louisa a tale about the firelight:
It's a kind of magic. Firelight makes time stand still. When you put out the lamps and sit in the firelight's glow there aren't any rules any more. You can do what you want, say what you want, be what you want, and when the lamps are lit again, time starts again, and everything you said or did is forgotten. More than forgotten it never happened.
Elisabeth finds that this helps Louisa concentrate on her lessons, knowing there is a time at the end of the day when there are no rules.
Increasingly attracted to Elisabeth, Charles asks her to promise him that they can never be close like they once were. But Elisabeth doesn't answer. Charles even talks about the three of them leaving together, but Elisabeth says she knows it is impossible, as he has obligations to his estate, family, and wife. Charles suddenly announces that the entire estate is being appraised for sale, purportedly to cover his overwhelming debts. On a bitterly cold night, Charles consults his conscience as to whether his wife, Amy, would want him to release her from her catatonic prison of ten years. He opens the windows of her bedchamber, removes her covers, and allows the fire in her room to go out, leaving her to die of exposure. With Amy's death, her sister Constance expects to be Charles's choice as a new wife. However, she concedes a dignified defeat when she realises Charles's depth of feeling toward Elisabeth. Elisabeth confronts Charles and asks him if he killed Amy, which he admits. They both feel strong guilt, but no regret.
Soon after, Louisa looks through Elisabeth's room and discovers the illustrated journal dedicated to "My English Daughter". Louisa confronts her governess who confirms she is in fact her mother. After the sale of the Godwin's estate, Charles, Elisabeth, and Louisa leave on a snowy day to begin their new lives together as a family.Sophie Marceau as Elisabeth Laurier
Stephen Dillane as Charles Godwin
Dominique Belcourt as Louisa Godwin
Kevin Anderson as John Taylor
Lia Williams as Constance
Joss Ackland as Lord Clare
Sally Dexter as Molly Holland
Emma Amos as Ellen
Maggie McCarthy as Mrs. Jago
Wolf Kahler as Sussman
Annabel Giles as Amy Godwin
John Flanagan as Robert Ames
Valerie Minifie as Hannah
Diana Payan as Mrs. Maidment
John Hodgkinson as Carlo
Firle Place, West Firle, East Sussex, England, UK
Pinewood Studios, Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire, England, UK (studio interiors)
1997 British Society of Cinematographers Award for Best Cinematography (Nic Morris) Won
1997 San Sebastián International Film Festival Prize of the Jury for Best Cinematography (Nic Morris) Won
1997 San Sebastián International Film Festival Golden Seashell Award (Nic Morris) Won