Kindhearted, but alcoholic school teacher Graham Weir, has a criminal record for refusing to fight in the war and consequently has been unable to move up in the world. His wife (Simone Signoret) resents their lack of money and is bitter about her life. He agrees to tutor one of his students, Shirley Taylor (Sarah Miles), despite his wife's misgivings about the girls intentions. After a school trip to Paris Shirley admits her love to Graham, but when she is rejected she accuses him of assault.
The film also stars Terence Stamp (!!) as the naughty Mitchell who terrorises everyone. Weir and Shirley develop a friendship, based on her infatuation for him, and his affection for her-as something of a substitute for the child he was unable to have. Sometimes his actions are somewhat cringe worthy in light of the audiences knowledge of Shirley's feelings. The film also subtly critiques the role of parents in their children's lives. Shirley is ashamed of her family, and Mitchell's father obviously encourages violence. Weir wants to make a difference in the children's lives, but his own unhappy life make him oblivious to what is really going on before his eyes.
Olivier's performance is understated yet tragic. He ardently believes in justice and truth yet is put down by everyone around him. Miles as Shirley is torn between childish and adult emotions. The ending of the film is surprising, and somewhat frustrating. After an impassioned speech for his innocence Weir succeeds in getting Shirley to admit her own guilt, however upon his return home he finds his wife about to leave him. She tells him he is a coward and in a desperate attempt to continue their relationship Weir lies. He tells her he did sleep with Shirley. Using this technique he does win her back, however it is a blatant contradiction of all he has said and done during the rest of the film. Despite his wife's cruelty towards him he sacrifices his own moral standards to keep her. It does make the audience question his strength-Perhaps he is as weak as his wife states?