Sujatha Rajasuriya (Malini Fonseka) has spent the last five years in London with her teenage daughter, Aruni (Paboda Sandeepani), following the death of her husband. Now they have returned to their mansion by the lake in Sri Lanka. Sita (Vasanthi Chaturani) and the staff of servants have taken good care of the place in their absence. Waves of emotion sweep over both mother and daughter as they enter the beautiful rooms of their home and marvel at the light and the tropical splendor of the surroundings. But there are also memories of loss and grief as Sujatha recalls the accidental death of her young son in the lake; she blames herself for not keeping watch over him.
Her brother Gunapala (Sanath Gunatileke) takes her to the bank where they learn that after five years of no payments on the loan her husband signed, they are in jeopardy of losing the mansion. Sujatha turns for help to Lucas (Ravindra Randeniya), the son of the family's first clerk who grew up in the house and is now a millionaire businessman. He will buy the mortgage but wants to demolish the mansion and sell off the land. Sujatha just can't bear the thought of his solution so she turns to her wealthy and eccentric Aunty Catherine (Iranganie Serasinghe). She listens to their proposal for a loan and tells them she will get back to them soon.
Sri Lankan director Lester James Peries states that this film was inspired by Chekhov's play The Cherry Orchard. Although the physical setting for the mansion by the lake is tranquil, there are tensions bubbling underneath the interaction of the characters. Years ago Sita refused to marry Lucas, leaving him with the impression that he wasn't good enough for her. Then Kirthi Bandara (Senaka Wijesinghe) arrives at the house; he was the tutor for Sujatha's son years ago. He confides in Aruni that he has led strikes at the varsity and is being watched closely by the police. He tells Lucas that he doesn't believe in the ruthlessness of capitalism and is working to bring about a better life for the poor and the powerless.
Mansion by the Lake draws us into a circle of sympathy for Sujatha and her family but leaves us wondering whether the gap between the rich and the poor will ever be bridged.
Screened at The 41st New York Film Festival, October 2003.