The film, presumably to meet the needs of the US market, moved the contemporary location from England to Pittsburgh and eliminated many of the extensive historical asides.
The film follows the story of an anguished English-born Pittsburgh high school teacher (Irons) in 1974 going through a reassessment of his life. His method is to narrate his life to his class and interweave three generations of his family's history. The film portrays the history teacher's narrative in the form of flashbacks to tell the story of a teenage boy and his mentally challenged older brother living in The Fens of England with their widowed father. In an opening scene the teacher's childless wife (Cusack) takes a child from a supermarket and believes it to be hers. The teacher explains to his class how he and his wife had a teenage romance which led to a disastrous abortion that left her infertile. The teacher is tortured by the guilt of this as well as the jealousy he demonstrated to his older brother when he suspected his girlfriend's child was his brother's. The girl's flirtation with the older brother sets off events that lead to the older boy's death by drowning. A side-theme is the teacher's grandfather, who was a successful brewer and who fathered with his daughter the narrator's older brother. The film ends with the teacher's dismissal from his school and a possible renewal of his relationship with his wife.
Jeremy Irons – Tom Crick
Sinéad Cusack – Mary Crick
Ethan Hawke – Matthew Price
John Heard - Lewis Scott
Grant Warnock - Young Tom
Lena Headey – Young Mary
Pete Postlethwaite – Henry Crick
Cara Buono – Judy Dobson
David Morrissey – Dick Crick
Maggie Gyllenhaal - Maggie Ruth
Part of the film was filmed at Doddington Place Gardens, near Faversham. The Victorian mansion was used as the ancestral home to Tom Crick.