Ben Mendelsohn stars as Lewis Riley, an unemployed young man who applies for a job as a director/drama teacher at a mental hospital. He lands the job and finds himself directing a production of the Mozart opera Così fan tutte, an elaborate, demanding piece of theatre, an opera in Italian. And it is going to be performed by a cast that he must select from among the patients, who only speak English.
One of the patients, Roy (Barry Otto), sweeps everything along before him, organising auditions, selecting cast members, and criticising the director. The cast chosen include three women: Julie (Toni Collette), Ruth (Pamela Rabe), and Cherry (Jacki Weaver) and two men: Henry (Paul Chubb) and Doug (David Wenham). The musical director is Zac (Colin Hay). The enthusiasm of Roy infects the group, and they charge headlong into a memorable production.
Alongside the story of Lewis, the theme of Così fan tutte is explored as it relates to his personal life. Lewis’s relationship with his girlfriend Lucy (Rachel Griffiths), already under pressure, is not helped by a friend called Nick (Aden Young), who seems more interested in testing Lucy’s faithfulness than anything else.
The story is loosely based on Nowra’s own experience at producing Trial by Jury at Plenty Mental Hospital in suburban Melbourne in 1971