Anna and Michael are successful young filmmakers from Alberta, married in life and in art. Their latest project is a movie about Martin Frobisher, Elizabethan pirate and explorer who made three perilous journeys to the Arctic in the 1570s. History says that Frobisher failed in his attempt to find the fabled Northwest Passage, a quick route through the American continent to the Asian silk and spice markets; but Michael believes that Frobisher was actually after something much more exotic and alluring: an untouched tropical Paradise, rumoured to exist in the vicinity of the North Pole. He wants to make a film about this impossible quest, even though Anna is convinced they are risking both their reputation as artists and any money that they invest in this scheme.
While scouting locations for the film near Baffin Island, Michael wanders away into an Arctic storm and is never seen again. With the support of her mother Jessica, who is also in the film business, Anna tries hard to accept the loss of Michael, and to move on, but she is tormented by the fact that she and Michael never resolved their disagreement about the Frobisher film. She feels, in spite of her misgivings about the concept, she must finish the script and get the movie made, to honour the memory of her husband and artistic partner.
Martin Frobisher himself, as well as Michael, has begun to haunt Anna's dreams, compelling her to tell the “true story” of his mad but exhilarating search for Earthly Paradise. Anna envisions Frobisher's struggle to convince Elizabeth I of England to pay for his third and final Arctic voyage, and this inspires Anna to visit a chic film festival in the Rockies, where she struggles to convince Stephen Wagman, a wealthy American producer, to bankroll Michael's movie. Fueled by Frobisher's dream, as though it were her own, Anna manages to get financing for her film.
In the Arctic again, Anna becomes more and more obsessed by the vision of “a dream beyond the bonds of life” which drove both her husband and an infamous Elizabethan pirate to risk death and destruction. Ultimately, when her mother shuts down work on the Frobisher film, because of its mushrooming cost and the dangers that cast and crew are facing, Anna decides to pursue the mad dream Northward, alone in a small boat.
Beyond the bonds of life, Anna finds Michael again and he tries to persuade her that she must return to life: her work there is not yet finished; she has more stories to tell to the living world. At the very border of existence, Anna quarrels with Michael. She wants to stay with him, in a place where the confusion and pain of life are past.
Meanwhile, Stephen Wagman, the film's producer, has given up on Anna and decides to provide his own “Hollywood ending” for Frobisher's cinematic saga, to the disgust of Anna's mother, colleagues, and friends.
These parallel stories of the quest for larger-than-life adventure and bliss — one set in the sixteenth century, and one in the twenty-first — are ultimately resolved in a final scene which is both heart-breaking and hopeful. Anna's, Michael's, and Frobisher's stories come to rest in a harbour of dreams, where life's risks are outweighed by its possibilities.