The action takes place in 1908 on the fictional Ottoman-ruled Greek island of Nisi. The film was largely shot on the Greek island of Symi and in Rhodes in the late summer of 1987.
In 1908 at Nisi, a small Greek Island under Ottoman rule, Turkish officials, Greek rebels, German emissaries and other foreign mercenaries mingle as they all try to keep the upper hand in that remote part of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Basil Pascali, a half-British half-Cypriot man, considers himself a local feature on the island. Since his arrival twenty years before, he spies for the Sultan sending detailed reports about suspicious activities. Nobody reads or even acknowledges his observations, his payment has never been increased but still arrives regularly, so he continues his work as an informant with unfailing eagerness.
Pascali's suspicions are aroused with the arrival of Anthony Bowles, a British archeologist, whose purpose in visiting the island is unclear. Basil quickly befriends Bowles at the hotel’s lounge bar and offers the archeologist his services as translator. Pascali introduces Bowles to his close friend, Lydia Neuman, a bohemian Austrian painter resident in the island. While Lydia and Anthony become smitten with each other, Pascali slips into Bowles' hotel room to investigate.
In Bowles' suitcase, Pascali finds a fake antique, a small statue's head, which makes him suspect that the archeologist may be a fraud. Needing help arranging a deal to lease some land from the local Pasha, Bowles hires Pascali as a translator. At Bowles' insistence, the agreement is sealed officially with a contract. Suspecting Bowles' intentions, Pascali warns him that the Pasha is not a man to be crossed. On their part, the Turkish authorities tell Pascali that he will be held responsible if Bowles fails to make the full payment.
Spying on Bowles, Pascali finds the archeologist romancing Lydia; swimming naked with her in a remote cove. Pascali has been secretly in love with Lydia and envies the handsome British archeologist. Aroused by the experience, Pascali relieves his sexual frustration at a Turkish bath. Unexpectedly, Bowles wants to change the terms of his contract. He found some small archeological object of great significance, he claims, so he wants the right to excavate to be included in a new lease. Once again Pascali severs as translator and intermediary with the Pasha, who seeing the objects, a gold collar and the antique statue's head, refuses to grant the excavation rights. The Turkish Pasha wants to buy the lease back; Bowles asks for a much larger sum that he originally paid. Pascali tells Bowles that he does not need to keep the pretense with him. Pascali knows that the small statue's head is a forgery and that Bowles intention from the start was to swindle the Turkish authorities enticing them to buy the lease back at a higher amount. Pascali asks for part of Bowles earning in exchange for his silence forcing Bowles to concede.
The ploy becomes more complicated when, by chance, Bowles makes a real important archeological discovery: a large bronze statue of a boy from Greek times that is in pristine condition. Deciding to secretly retrieve the statue, Bowles asks Pascali for help delaying the closing of the lease deal for two more days. Pascali helps him not only with the Turkish authorities but also on the excavation. He intends to use the money Bowles offers him to travel to Constantinople and find out what has happened with his reports, the only thing that has given meaning to his life. Both Lydia and Bowles try to persuade Pascali to leave the island as the fall of the Ottoman Empire is imminent. However, believing that Bowles is going to swindle him with the money, Pascali denounces him with the Turkish authorities. He guides them that night to the excavation site. As Bowles and Lydia are planning to leave the island, with the help of the Americans, taken the statue with them, they are all shot and killed by the Turkish.
Pascali, already regretting having betrayed his friends, returns home just to find the money and a letter from Bowles trying to help him leave the island. Pascali is devastated for his useless mistakes. His reports were neither read nor kept. He loved both Lydia and Bowles but caused their deaths. As the Ottoman Empire crumbles, the only thing left for Pascali is to wait for the Greeks to come for him.Ben Kingsley - Basil Pascali
Charles Dance - Anthony Bowles
Helen Mirren - Lydia Neuman
Kevork Malikyan - Mardosian
George Murcell - Herr Gesing
Nadim Sawalha - Pasha
Stefan Gryff - Izzet Effendi
Vernon Dobtcheff - Pariente
Sheila Allen - Mrs. Marchant
T. P. McKenna - Dr. Hogan
Danielle Allen - Mrs. Hogan
Nick Burnell - Chaudan
Giorgos Oikonomou - Greek Rebel
Alistair Campbell - Captain
Ali Abatsis - Boy in Bath
Brook Williams - Turkish Officer
Joshua Losey - Turkish Soldier (as Josh Losey)
Nick Karagiannis - Boy in Church