In 1931, in the Arctic-Canadian settlement of Nunataaq, Avik (Robert Joamie) lives under the watchful eye of his grandmother (Jayko Pitseolak). While tagging along after British cartographer Walter Russell (Patrick Bergin), Avik falls prey to tuberculosis, the "white man's disease". To assuage his own guilt, Russell takes the boy to a Montreal clinic to recover. There, Avik meets Albertine (Annie Galipeau), a Métis girl and the two fall in love, but their relationship is quickly broken up by the Mother Superior who is in charge of the clinic.
Years later, Avik again meets Russell, who this time is on a mission to recover the German U-boat lying wrecked off the coast of Nunataaq. Throughout his life, Avik is haunted by love for a now-grown Albertine (Anne Parillaud) and by a belief that he brings misfortune to those around him. Avik asks for Russell's help in learning her whereabouts, and he gives the cartographer a chest X-ray of the girl which he has carried with him since their separation.
More time elapses, and a mature Avik (Jason Scott Lee) joins the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Second World War and eventually becomes a bombardier in a Avro Lancaster bomber. Albertine, who has become Russell's mistress. seeks out Avik. She begins an affair with Avik but Russell soon finds out, and, as revenge, sends Avik and his crew on a suicide mission of which Avik is the lone survivor. During his missions, he also participates in the firebombing of Dresden.
Despondent over his war experiences, Avik flees to Canada, where he becomes an alcoholic. Decades later, he is sought out by Rainee (Clotilde Courau), the daughter born from his affair with Albertine. On his way to the girl's wedding, Avik crashes his snowmobile on an ice floe,as he freezes to death he dreams of going to his daughter's wedding and flying away on a balloon with Albertine.
Map of the Human Heart's re-creation of the firebombing of Dresden is one of the most graphic and powerful sequences in the film. On the day Ward finished shooting those scenes, he received word that his father, who had actually participated in the historical firebombing of Dresden, had died. This is why Ward chose to dedicate the film to him.
The scenes in "Nunataaq", the region of Northern Canada where Avik's people are from, were filmed on location in what is now Nunavut, using local Inuit as extras. Two other scenes received attention. The first one is a pivotal love scene that takes place on top of an English military blimp (not in a cabin or gondola but actually on top of the blimp), the other is the final scene of the film which has a twist ending.
Map of the Human Heart was critically reviewed and found favourable mention from many film critics. Roger Ebert noted: "Map of the Human Heart tells a soaring story of human adventure - adventure of the best kind, based not on violence, but on an amazing personal journey. It is incredible sometimes what distances can be traveled in a single human life, and this is a movie about a man who could not have imagined his end in his beginning."
Brian Case in the 2004 Time Out Film Guide, said: "Ward's ambitious epic love story covers two continents and three decades and, its execution apart, could have sprung from one of those fat romantic chronicles written for the typing pool. But Ward has an extravagant visual imagination so that even the more outlandish scenes, like the hero and heroine finally consummating their passion on a half-deflated barrage balloon, linger in the mind. Where lack of money cramps his vision of WWII bombing raids on Germany, the director achieves a pleasing shorthand with lighting."
Map of the Human Heart grossed $539,000 at the box office in Australia.
Map of the Human Heart was screened out of competition at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival. The film was nominated for the 1993 Australian Film Institute Awards where the film won as Best Film, and Vincent Ward as Best Director and Robert Joamie won in the category of Young Actor. Map of the Human Heart was also nominated for Best Original Music Score, Best Achievement in Sound, Editing and Cinematography categories. The film was also a winner in the 1993 Tokyo International Film Festival where Vincent Ward won the Best Artistic Contribution Award, and Robert Joamie along with Anne Parillaud won Special Mention for a Talent of the Future award. Further, Vincent Ward was nominated in the Tokyo Grand Prix. Jason Scott Lee was also nominated in the 1994 Chicago Film Critics Association Awards for Most Promising Actor.