Jeremy Irons stars as Tom Crick, a morose (typical Irons) history teacher who's past is full of tragedies and oddly grim experiences. He becomes nervous after being unable of successfully teaching his students about the French revolution, so he starts sharing his painful experiences about his teenage days.
The most interesting part about the plot is how he describes his past in the fenlands of England, and storytelling takes an interesting turn where there's a point in which the line between present and past blurs, showing Jeremy Irons with his students as if they were going on a field trip through Irons's story. Ethan Hawke plays a rebellious student who begins questioning Crick's stories and tells him that he just wants to keep the students interested.
Another key character in the story is Tom Crick's wife Mary, who shared much of Tom's experiences in the past to the point where it's shown that they used to have sex in an abandoned mill. Something crucial happens that also involves Tom's mentally handicapped brother leading to a tragic chapter in Tom's life. Mary becomes unable to bear a baby and that troubles her to the point of stealing a baby.
Waterland is a touching film, the events are shown carefully through Crick's stories. Everything that happens contributes to Crick's pain and it's not hard to see why. In Crick's stories we see how he begins as a carefree, joyful teenager and slowly becomes depressed because of the events told in the stories.
It is a very recommendable film, even though it has it's flaws. The developing of the plot is very original and interesting because of its careful structure, and the performances are excellent, even better than the plot itself, Jeremy Irons holds everything together pretty well with his performance and in the end the viewer really feels sad for Irons's character.