Nathaniel (Eric Stoltz) and Barbara (Julie Delpy) are two college students who greatly admire the work of author Ayn Rand (Helen Mirren). Ayn is a woman who has a great influence on the people she meets due to her high intellect and all-consuming charm but she holds delusions of grandeur, always regarding herself as better than others. In the summer of 1949, Barbara and Nathaniel visit Ayn and her husband Frank (Peter Fonda) and the four quickly become close friends. Ayn manipulates their situation and pushes the young pair into a relationship leading to marriage. As the years pass the pressure grows on the couple's relationship and Nathaniel is drawn into an affair with Ayn when they begin a literary group together. Ayn justifies their infidelity with the belief that she and Nathaniel are superior and can therefore carry on their affair regardless of everyone else. Overspilling with uncontrolled emotions, her friends hurt and upset by her actions, Rand examines her idealised spirit to see where it leads her next, with the possibility of losing everything and everyone she has around her.