In this slow paced screen adaptation of the bestselling novel by Nicholas Sparks, Kevin Costner plays Garret Blake, a boat builder who is still grieving the loss of his beloved wife Catherine, an artist, two years earlier. When Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright Penn), a researcher for the Chicago Tribune vacationing on Cape Cod, finds a bottle containing his letter to Catherine, she is so moved that she decides to track him down. She wants to meet any romantic who could describe a woman as his "true North."

Her boss, Charles Toschi (Robbbie Coltrane), a columnist, prints the letter in the newspaper, eliciting an outpouring of emotional responses from women, plus two more letters that have been found. Meanwhile, Theresa uses some fancy detective work to trace the age of the bottle cork, the origin of the stationary, and the meaning of clues in the letters. Eventually, she finds the man himself on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Shy but friendly, he invites her to sail with him on a boat he is repairing. She begins to fall in love with him, but fails to tell him the truth about the reasons behind her visit. In this deception, she mirrors her ex-husband who quietly cheated on her for a year before their divorce.

Director Luis Mandoki pads this uneventful drama with unnecessary musical interludes as the love affair between this career woman and the boat builder unspools. Like You've Got Mail, this film asks us to empathize with a person who is trying to build a love relationship while violating the most basic moral imperatives of honesty and trust. The only really juicy character here is Dodge (Paul Newman), Garret's cantankerous father whose forthrightness comes across as a refreshing relief from the inarticulateness of both his son and Theresa.