Fledgling writer Briony Tallis, as a thirteen-year-old, irrevocably changes the course of several lives when she accuses her older sister's lover of a crime he did not commit.
SPOILER: When Briony Tallis, 13 years old and an aspiring writer, sees her older sister Cecilia and Robbie Turner at the fountain in front of the family estate she misinterprets what is happening thus setting into motion a series of misunderstandings and a childish pique that will have lasting repercussions for all of them. Robbie is the son of a family servant toward whom the family has always been kind. They paid for his time at Cambridge and now he plans on going to medical school. After the fountain incident, Briony reads a letter intended for Cecilia and concludes that Robbie is a deviant. When her cousin Lola is raped, she tells the police that it was Robbie she saw committing the deed.
In 1939, Robbie Turner is a private in the British Army, he and his battalion who are heading to France to fight in the war. A stint in the army is not where his life was headed, which took a radical turn four years earlier at the Tallis estate where he grew up as his mother worked as the Tallis' live-in housekeeper. As such, he grew up with the three Tallis children: son Leon, and daughters Cecilia and Briony. Robbie and Cecilia were just getting to the stage of their lives of being able to confess their true love for each other. But then thirteen year old aspiring writer Briony also had a crush on the older Robbie. Based on two incidents she saw between Cecilia and Robbie (one only from afar), on reading a private letter Robbie wrote to Cecilia and on her own feelings for Robbie, Briony told some truths and half-truths about Robbie which resulted in this turn in his life. Robbie is able to reconnect with Cecilia before he is shipped off to France, and lives only to be able to head back to London to be with Cecilia and make up for the missing four years they could not spend together due to Briony's actions. A year later, Briony, now eighteen, also arrives in London to start working as a nurse to support the war effort. By this time, she is aware of the damage her thirteen year old self caused, and wants to atone for that error to both Cecilia from who she has been estranged, and Robbie who she has not seen since. She will make this atonement even if neither Robbie or Cecilia will ever speak to her, or if it takes the rest of her life.
The day that 13-year-old Briony Tallis came across her older sister Cecelia and her lover Robbie making love in the library was a day that would have repercussions for all three of them. Briony misunderstands what has taken place between them and her reaction later tears the two lovers apart perhaps forever as war breaks out in Britain.
- In England in 1935, precocious 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) lives on her family's country estate with her mother and sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley). Cecilia is home for the summer from Cambrige where she has been studying with the housekeeper's son, Robbie (James McAvoy). She and Robbie have an uncertain relationship; neither is willing to act on it but a certain romantic chemistry exists between them. One day, Briony sees from her bedroom window an argument between Cecilia and Robbie at the fountain. Robbie accidentally broke an antique vase and a piece of it fell into the fountain. Angrily, Cecilia stripped to her underwear and dived into the fountain to retrieve it. Briony is confused about the sexual tension between the two of them.
The Tallises are being visited by young relatives from the north -- the twins Pierrot and Jackson (Felix and Charlie von Simson) and their 15-year-old sister, Lola (Juno Temple), whose parents are in the process of divorcing. Leon Tallis (Patrick Kennedy) brings his friend Paul (Benedict Cumberbatch) for dinner. Paul keenly follows Hitler's political advance and predicts war. He plans to sell chocolate bars to the British military to give to its soldiers. While he tries to amuse Pierrot and Jackson, Paul and Lola flirt.
Embarrassed by his behavior earlier in the day, Robbie tries to write an apology note to Cecilia. One of the drafts includes a sexually charged declaration of his love for her. He then writes a more formal apology he intends to deliver to her. However, he accidentally gives the sexual note to Briony while walking to dinner at the Tallises that night; he gives her the note because he believes it will be less embarrassing if it comes from Briony instead of him. When he realizes what he has done, he calls out to Briony but she is too far away to hear him. Back in the house, she reads the note and is scandalized. She gives the note to Cecilia but later confides to Lola that she believes Robbie is a dangerous sex maniac. Lola has come to her with arm bruises that she accuses her twin brothers of giving to her but Briony ignores them.
Robbie arrives for dinner. He and Cecilia discuss the note and admit their love for one another. They make passionate love in the library but are discovered by Briony. At dinner, it is discovered that Pierrot and Jackson have run away. Everyone looks for them. While looking for them by a creek, Briony stumbles on Lola being raped by someone. He runs away into the darkness. Briony insists to first Lola and then the police that Robbie was the culprit and brandishes the sexual letter to Cecilia as evidence. Only Cecilia protests his innocence. When Robbie returns with the twins, he is arrested for rape. Tried and convicted, he is sent to prison. Four years later he is released into the British army and makes up part of the British Expeditionary Force that is sent to northern France in an attempt to halt the Nazi advance.
In northern France, Robbie and two fellow soldiers attempt to make their way to Dunkirk, where the remnants of the BEF are to be evacuated after the Nazis rout their forces and the French. He has a shrapnel wound in his chest. Several weeks earlier, before he left London, he saw Cecilia again. She remained true to him for four years and begs him to come back to her. She reveals that she has broken contact with her family over her love for Robbie and belief in his innocence. She gives him a photograph of a seaside cottage near Dover that they can retire to. It will give him strength as he struggles towards Dunkirk. Cecilia is a nurse in London. She learns that Briony, now 18 (Romola Garai) has decided not to study at Cambridge and is training to be a nurse herself. Briony knows that Robbie did not rape Lola, that it was Paul -- to whom Lola is now engaged and who has become a millionaire selling his candy to the British army. Briony goes to see Cecilia to admit her guilt and state her willingness to do whatever it takes to atone for her sins and clear Robbie's name. Robbie is in Cecilia's apartment when she gets there. Although they are angry with her, they tell her what she needs to do to make things right. She agrees, then leaves as Cecilia and Robbie are intimate for one last time before he is shipped to France with the BEF.
In 1999, Briony (Vanessa Redgrave), now in her late seventies and dying of vascular dementia, is a famous novelist. Her new book, __Atonement__, will be published on her birthday. The foregoing narrative had been one she created for her book, as an act of atonement for what she did to Robbie and Cecilia. In real life, she never saw Cecilia after she left the family, and Cecilia and Robbie never had a last tender moment in her apartment before he left with the BEF. Instead, he died at Dunkirk of septicemia, waiting to be evacuated. Cecilia died a few months later when a German bomb burst a water main and flooded the subway tunnel in which she and other Londoners had taken refuge during the Blitz. Briony hopes that, by reuniting them, she gives them the happy conclusion to their lives that they deserved and her readers the hope that everyone needs to survive.
Robbie and Cecilia walk down the beach on a bright, beautiful day. On the steps of the seaside cottage, they look at the beautiful white cliffs, then disappear inside.
THE FOLLOWING IS NOT COMPOSED BY ME. THIS APPEARS IN ONE OF THE MOVIE SPOILER WEBSITES AND IS WRITTEN BY SOMEONE CALLED 'D Schwarz'. ITS SO DESCRIPTIVE AND FANTASTIC THAT I DECIDED TO SHARE IT WITH OTHER IMDB USERS. THE TEXT HAS NOT BEEN CHANGED IN ANY WAY AND APPEARS EXACTLY AS WRITTEN BY THE ORIGINAL WRITER. ************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************
The film starts out with a 13 year old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) writing a play that she wants to put on that evening for the return of her older brother Leon. She runs through the house and into the garden and finds twenty-something year old Robbie Turner the housekeeper's son (James McAvoy) as he is tending to the flowers. They exchange conversation and it's clear that she has a crush on him but he regards her as a little sister. We then see Briony's mother reading the play and loving it.
The next scene shows Briony lying on the garden with her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). Briony asks Cecilia why she doesn't talk to Robbie anymore, Cecilia says she does, they just move in different circles. Then we see Briony rehearsing the play with her cousins, Pierrot and Jackson Quincy and their older sister Lola (Juno Temple). Lola is about 16 or so. The younger boys quickly get bored with the play and go off for a swim and Briony is left alone in the house. She is looking out the window and sees Cecilia and Robbie out by the fountain in some sort of argument. Then we see Cecilia strip down to her slip and jump into the fountain to retrieve something and she comes out and her slip is wet and sheer and Robbie looks away as she dresses and leaves. We suddenly see the same scene from the point of view of Cecilia and Robbie, as they are talking while walking into the garden, Cecilia is holding an expensive vase and as she tried to fill it with water from the fountain, Robbie tried to take it from her to fill it and she refuses and they pull on it, breaking the porcelain. It falls into the fountain, which is what Cecilia goes to retrieve.
We then see Cecilia in her room, smoking, just generally getting ready for the evening. Through her window she sees her brother Leon drive up with a friend, some rich tycoon who owns a chocolate factory. She sees Leon talking to Robbie with dismay. They meet Leon's friend, who seems rather shady. Leon, Cecilia and the friend, Paul Marshall, are all swimming I the lake and it is revealed that Robbie and Cecilia went to school together and that Robbie is pursuing a medical degree. Leon informs Cecilia that he has invited Robbie to dinner, and Cecilia is upset at this. The scene then cuts to Robbie in his cottage typing a letter to Cecilia, trying to apologize for his behavior earlier that day. He types several drafts before finally typing a rather raunchy sexual letter to her. While he is typing we see the scene cut back and forth between him and Cecilia getting ready and putting clips in her hair. (Important) He laughs as he writes it, then folds it up and places it next to his typewriter. He then handwrites a very heartfelt apology and goes to get ready for dinner that evening. As he walks down the lane to the main house he sees Briony playing in the garden and asks her to deliver the letter to Cecilia, which she does. As she is running to the house, we see Robbie suddenly remember that he put the wrong letter in the envelope and in fact, the raunchy letter is being delivered. He screams for Briony but its too late and she is already in the house and is reading the letter. She then delivers it to Cecilia, but without the envelope, so Cecilia knows that she has read it. We then see Paul Marshall wandering through the house and comes across the cousins, Pierrot, Jackson and Lola. He entertains the children but it is also clear that he is interested in Lola.
Later on Briony goes to her room to change for dinner and Lola enters her room, complaining about being tortured by her little brothers. Briony takes this opportunity to tell Lola what was written in the raunchy letter, calling Robbie a sexual maniac. She then gets ready for dinner and is running down the stairs when she sees a small hairclip on the floor. She picks it up and sees a light shining through a doorway, she follows it to see Robbie and Cecilia in an awkward position against the wall of the library, obviously having made love just moments before. We see Briony's teary face just as the scene cuts to Robbie ringing the doorbell for dinner. Cecilia answers the door and he tries to apologize for giving the wrong version of the letter. Cecilia takes him to the library and basically they admit their attraction to one another and start kissing and having sex up against the wall. In the middle of it they tell each other they love one another and then continue, until Cecilia hears the door open and Briony walk in. They disentangle themselves and leave the room, with Briony just watching them.
At dinner they all pretend nothing's happened, until Mrs. Tallis notices that the young twin boys aren't at dinner so Briony is sent to get them. She comes back down and informs the group that the boys have run away, so a search party is immediately formed. Briony takes a flashlight and set out alone and stumbles across a man with his pants down on top of Lola. As soon as the flashlight shines on them he runs away, but you don't see his face. Lola is crying and Briony runs up to her, asking her who the man was. Lola isn't sure as her eyes were covered, but Briony convinces her it was Robbie.
Lola is brought into the house and the police are called and Briony testifies that it was Robbie who attacked Lola and she is sure she saw him. Cecilia tells the police not to believe Briony as she is a fanciful girl but as soon as Robbie comes back to the house, having found the two young boys, the police take him away.
The movie cuts to 4 years later and we see Robbie in France with two other privates in the army, as it is now WW2. They ask him what an educated man like him is doing as a private, to which Robbie responds, you can't get promoted if you've come out of prison and he was given a choice, stay in prison, or join the army. Then we see a scene from six months earlier where Robbie and Cecilia meet after 3 and 1/2 years and after some awkward conversation they declare their love for one another after all this time. Cecilia has become a nurse now in London and is living in an apartment and doesn't speak to her sister Briony or her family anymore. Robbie returns to the war but they continue to write letters, Cecilia tells him of a cottage by the sea they can visit the next time he is on leave and gives him a picture of it to hold on to. We see him throughout the film, going through battle and looking at the same picture every chance he gets. Cecilia also tells him that Briony is now in Nurse's training and has written to her, asking to talk.
We then see a 18 year old Briony, in her nurse's uniform, trying to fit in at the hospital. She writes to Cecilia, asking to talk and telling her she only now realizes the full extent of her false testimony years ago. We see Robbie wounded in France and waiting for the roundup of soldiers to be taken to the hospital and then see Briony and the other nurses tending to injured soldiers. She imagines that she sees Robbie but he isn't there. Several days later Briony then leaves the hospital to attend the wedding of Paul Marshall, who is marrying her cousin Lola. Lola sees Briony at the wedding but ignores her. Briony then goes to Cecilia's apartment and begs to talk to her, to apologize. She sees Robbie there, who wants to break her neck but instead Robbie and Cecilia make Briony fix what she has done wrong and change her statement. Briony admits that she saw Paul Marshall attacking Lola that night in the garden and they become upset because Paul has just married Lola so he has immunity. We see Briony agree to change her statement and she leaves and we see Cecilia and Robbie finally together in the apartment, kissing. Then Briony is on a train and suddenly the screen goes black and a woman says, can we stop for a moment.
We cut to present day and we see an old Briony Tallis (Vanessa Redgrave) being interviewed about her latest book, titled Atonement. She explains how it is her last book because she is dying and she wanted to be completely honest about all the events of the situation. She admits however that she wasn't honest about one part. That she never went to her sister that day to ask for forgiveness and that Robbie was never there because he died of septicemia in France waiting to be taken to the hospital a few months earlier. She also says that she never got to set things right with her sister because she was killed in a bomb blast a few months after Robbie died. Briony admits that she has had to live with this truth all her life so she changed it in her book, in order to give Cecilia and Robbie their chance to be together in her book, if not in real life.
The last scene shows Cecilia and Robbie playing on the beach and then going into the cottage that Cecilia had talked about earlier and the movie ends.