Atonement movie ending explained: what actually happened?

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This article reveals the explained plot and the detailed events in 2007 movie Atonement, directed by Joe Wright, revealing its meaning, ending and storyline. We recommend you to read it only after watching the movie, and not before, in order to preserve the pleasure of the first vision.

Atonement is a movie released in 2007, based on Ian McEwan’s novel of the same name. The plot is not always linear, many flashbacks allow to see the events from different point of views, and the ending of the movie can be confusing, as what we see actually doesn’t fit the explanation of the events. It’s therefore natural that the spectator wants to read the plo and the ending explained. This article will provide all the needed answers, in a short and simple way.

Atonement, the plot explained: how Robbie went to prison

The movie starts in 1935. In a rich mansion lives the Tallis family. We get to know Briony, the little sister in love with Robbie, the housekeeper’s son. We also understand that Robbie is actually in love with Briony’s older sister, Cecilia. One day Briony sees a scene from the house: Robbie and Cecilia at the fountain, Cecilia jumps into the water and comes out fully wet, in underwear. The spectator understands later that it was because a vase was broken and Cecilia hd to recover a piece missing.

Later on Robbie writes a letter trying to apologize to Cecilia for not being helpful in that occasion. By joke, he writes a dirty letter where he exposes his sexual desire for Cecilia. He has no intention to give her that letter, but he confuses the right letter with the wrong one, and gives the sexually-explicit letter to Briony, who reads it before giving it to Cecilia. So Briony saw a suspicious scene at the fountain, then reads this letter. She talks about it to Lola, her courin, who defines Robbie a sex maniac.

That night, Briony sees Robbie having sex with Cecilia at the library. The spectator discovers soon that it was consensual sex (the two love each other), but at Briony’s eyes, Robbie is a traitor (he didn’t return her love), a sex maniac and, therefore, that was probably a rape. The same night, while the family was looking for Lola’s brother in the night, Briony sees Lola and a man on top of her. She cannot see the man in the face. Lola asks her if she saw him. Briony says sure that it was Robbie, and Lola doesn’t say a word.

That night, Briony will testimony and say that he saw Robbie with her eyes. Plus, she will provide the sexually-explicit letter to ther mom, Lola confirms Briony’s testimony. All clues point to Robbie’s guilt. He’s been arrested. before going to prison, Cecilia hugs him, tells him she loves him and asks him to come back to her.

Four years later

1939. Robbie is fighting in the World War II, in France. He got this chance as an alternative to prison. He still wants to come back and marry Cecilia. Cecilia is a nurse. Briony becomes a nurse too. She keeps writing to Cecilia, never getting an answer. She feels guilty for what happened, despite she still believes that Robbie was Lola’s raper.

She gets to know that Lola will soon marry Paul, a man present that night of four years before. She decides to attend the wedding and, during the ceremony, she has a insight: it was Paul on top of Lola that night.

What we see at this point is that she goes to visit Cecilia, apologizing. She finds Robbie in that house: apparently he’s about to leave and join the war in France. Briony explains that the man with Lola that night was Paul, and the two are now married. She agrees with Cecilia and Robbie to correct the testimony.

DUring this part of the movie, we see Robbie in France, having vision because of an infected wound. We don’t konw yet how things will go. This will be explained in Atonement ending, that we are going to analyze now.

Atonement ending explained

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Decades later, Briony is a old woman, a successful writer, presenting in an interview her last book, Atonement. In the interview she explaines that the book is a confession of what truly happened. An act of courage she put in written words, because it was the only way she managed to do it. In fact, what she says tin that interview is that the encounter with Cecilia and Robbie in 1939 never actually happened: she never had the courage to talk and apologize to her sister. Cecilia and Robbie never actually saw each other again: Robbie will die in Dunkirk because of that infected wound, before being evacuated back home, while Cecilia will die some months later, in London, during the german bombing in UK.

We therefore understand that the scene we saw where Cecilia, Robbie and Briony were talking about correcting the testimony was not real: it was a fictional invention of Briony in the book. And the same applies to the very last scene of the movie, where we see Cecilia and Robbie again together at Cecilia’s new house, living together after all the troubles they lived: this was the only way Briony could fix what she did: by making up a different reality in her book, and give happiness to Cecilia and Robbie at least in the story she wrote.

Atonement is therefore the story of a woman, Briony, who feels guilty her entire life for what she did when she was minor, and for the lack of courage she had as adult, never trying to fix what she did. After a whole life living with this guilt, her last book is both her confession, and her wish that things went differently, and Cecilia and Robbie could love each other for the rest of their lives.

Why Lola lied about Robbie?

The only way to explain why Lola lied and confirmed Briony’s testimony about Robbie raping her is that Lola was actually having consensual sex with Paul that night. Paul already showed interest for her. But Lola was 15, and even though they liked each other, if they discovered they were having sex, it would have been a huge scandal, ruining both their lives. That’s why Lola is primarily interested to understand if Briony actually saw Paul. She didn’t. When she said she saw Robbie, Lola thought that it’s a good explanation to save her and Paul’s reputation.

The two will get married as soon as Lola is over 18: they are both guilty for bringing Robbie in prison, and getting married they are safe that none of them will represent a threat against the other, because they cannot testimony against the spouse.

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