Elspeth (Phyllida Law) stubbornly picks her way across the icy streets of a coastal Scottish town to pay a visit to her daughter Frances (Emma Thompson). Frances, still paralyzed with grief following the death of her husband, does what many a daughter would do: she hides in the bathroom. Eventually, she emerges, and the two women engage in the particular pas-de-deux of mothers and daughters. There is sarcasm, honesty, affectionate gestures and exasperated concern.
Juxtaposed against this interplay at the doings of three other pairs of local residents: Frances’s adolescent son Alex (Gary Hollywood) and his sexually adventurous new friend Nita (Arlene Cockburn); old friends Lily (Sheila Reid) and Chloe (Sandra Voe), who wait endlessly in the frigid cold for a bus to take them to a wake; and schoolboys Sam (Douglas Murphy) and Tom (Sean Biggerstaff), who skip school to hang out on the windswept beach.
Each of the four pairs will come together, draw back, and reunite in a different place in their relationship in Alan Rickman’s auspicious directorial debut, their rhythms echoing the eternal retreat and advance of the ocean tide.