Jakob (Robbie Kay) is nine years old in 1942 and living in Poland when Nazis enter his home, murder his parents, and take away his teenage sister Bella. The boy sees it all from a hiding place. Later he sneaks away into the forest where he is found by Athos Roussos (Rade Sherbedgia), a Greek archaeologist working in the area. He takes the traumatized boy to an island in Greece. Although the Nazis are also there and are killing the local Jews, they do not notice Jakob. After the war, Athos receives a teaching position in Canada, and they move there with high hopes of being free from the terrors of the past.
But both men do not forget what they have seen, and they continue to collect stories of the suffering and loss experienced by the Jews in Europe. Jakob (Stephen Dillane) grows up into a sensitive man dedicated to bearing witness to the Jewish struggle. He cannot forget the death of his parents and questions about what happened to his sister; their presence haunts his life. Alex (Rosamund Pike), a vibrant and sexy woman, wants to save him from what she regards as a dreary and stunted existence. She introduces him to her circle of friends. But even after they marry, he keeps her closed out of his private world. Eventually she leaves him.
Jakob returns to his writing, spending part of the year in Greece. He meets Michaela (Ayelet Zurer), a tender and understanding woman who accepts his deep grief and connection with those who are still in pain about the past. One of these is Ben (Ed Stoppard), a child of Holocaust survivors who have had a hard time adapting to life after their experiences of horror and trauma.
Canadian filmmaker Jeremy Podeswa (The Five Senses) has adapted the 1996 international bestselling novel by Anne Michaels for the screen. The story makes many poignant observations about memory, suffering, and the redemptive power of love. Stephen Dillane, who was so extraordinary in The Hours, captures and conveys Jakob's difficult journey through guilt for having survived and his serious effort to bear witness to the past and the heroism of those whose lives were taken or irreparably damaged by the Holocaust. His love affair with Michaela opens his heart further, and his relationship with Ben enables him to pass on what he has learned from his own pain. Music plays a restorative place in the lives of these characters when words no longer suffice to express the mystery and majesty of the human adventure.