Atonement (2007) Ending Explained: Why Did Briony Lie?

This post includes a brief summary, an explanation about the ending of the film Atonement (2007) and a character analysis of Briony Tallis. Why did Briony lie? Beware of spoilers.

atonement 2007 ending explained

Directed by Joe Wright, the 2007 drama is based on Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel of the same name. Atonement stars Keira Knightley as Cecilia Tallis and James McAvoy as Robbie Turner. The main character Briony Tallis is played by three different actresses (from young to old): Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave.

Atonement (2007) – Plot Summary

The story is set in three different time periods: 1935 (England), World War II and present-day England.

Briony Tallis is a young girl with big aspirations of becoming a writer. She and her older sister Cecilia come from a wealthy family. The Tallis are organizing a big dinner for family members and friends. Robbie Turner, the housekeeper’s son is also an invited guest for the gathering.

One day, Briony sights her sister and Robbie together. During their brief interaction, the young man inadvertently breaks the vase that Cecilia was carrying. Some of the broken pieces went into the fountain, while others remained on the floor. As a result, Robbie urges Cecilia not to move. However, Cecilia decides to ignore his advice and strips off her clothes to get inside the fountain and retrieve the missing pieces of the vase. Meanwhile, Briony interprets the whole incident as Robbie forcing Cecilia to undress against her will.

As an apology, Robbie writes a note to Cecilia and asks Briony to deliver it to her sister. However, he gave the wrong envelope to Briony. Robbie gave the first draft to the little girl, a note expressing his most lustful thoughts for Cecilia. When Robbie realized the blunder, it was too late, the letter was already in Briony’s hands.

Unable to hold her curiosity, Briony decides to open the letter and read it, before delivering it to her sister. The language used in the letter caught the little girl off guard. Confused, Briony she reaches out to her visiting cousin Lola and describes the letter to her. The cousin makes fun of Robbie and calls him a “sex maniac”. Shortly after, the Tallis family receives a visitor: Paul Marshall, a friend of Briony’s older brother. The man introduces himself to the rest of the family and tries to befriend Lola.

Robbie tries to apologize to Cecilia for the vulgar words used in the letter. To his surprise, she is not angry at him. After confessing her feelings for Robbie, the two make love in the library. However, Briony catches them in the act and thinks that Robbie was forcing himself on Cecilia. Meanwhile, Lola’s twin brothers go missing and the entire family joins efforts to find them. During the search, Briony sees a man sexually assaulting Lola, who flees way. After the incident, the girls talk and Briony convinces herself that Robbie was the man behind Lola’s assault. Shortly after, the police comes and arrests Robbie based on Lola and Briony’s testimony, as well as, the letter he sent to Cecilia.

Four years later, Robbie is out of prison. The young man agreed to join the army and fight in the Battle of France (World War II) in exchange for his release. Meanwhile, Cecilia is now a nurse, as well as Briony. The younger Tallis sister decided not to go the University of Cambridge. Although Briony often writes to Cecilia, she never gets an answer back from her older sister.

During the Battle of France, Robbie and a couple of other fellow soldiers end up separating from their unit. As a result, the group had to walk on foot to Dunkirk (place of evacuation). Although, Robbie is ill due to an infected open wound, he still manages to arrive at the beaches of Dunkirk.

After watching a newsreel, Briony finds out that Lola is marrying Paul, who’s now the owner of a rations supply factory. In order to make peace with her past, Briony decides to attend the wedding. During the ceremony, Briony has a flashback: Paul was the man on top of Lola. After this shocking realization, Briony rushes to Cecilia’s place to personally apologize for what she did.

To her surprise, Briony finds Robbie in Cecilia’s apartment. Once again, Briony apologizes to both for the terrible mistake she made years ago. However, Robbie is not willing to forgive her and accuses Briony of being irresponsible. While Cecilia calms Robbie down, she tells Briony to correct her testimony in order to clear Robbie’s name. Meanwhile, the couple learns that Paul was the man behind Lola’s assault. However, Briony reminds them that Lola won’t be able to testify against her husband. Nonetheless, Briony agrees to do her part and leaves Cecilia’s house.

A couple of decades later, Briony, who is now a well-know writer announces her final book and retirement. During an interview, she explains her latest novel named “Atonement”. As Briony explains her reasons to write to book, she also reveals that her encounter with Cecilia was completely fictional. It never happened, because Briony never gathered enough courage to reach out to her older sister. In addition, Robbie and Cecilia never had the chance to see each other ever again. In real life, Robbie died of septicaemia while awaiting for the evacuation in Dunkirk and Cecilia died a couple of months later during the bombing of Balham tube station. Therefore, Briony decided to reunite the couple in her book as a way to compensate for the happiness that she robbed them when they were alive.

The film ends with Cecilia and Robbie happily reunited nearby the sea house they planned to visit once Robbie came back from the army.

Atonement (2007) – Ending Explained

Robbie and Cecilia died before they had the chance to see each other again. So what’s the point of the entire story? Atonement is about regret and how a simple lie can change one’s fate.

The ending is pretty clear but, there are still some questions that need an answer. For instance, why did Briony lie? Did she do it out of spite or naivety? In addition, why did Lola lie about the assault? Let’s start with Briony.

Why Did Brione Lie?

First things first, Atonement has a very unreliable narrator: Briony. This means that everything is from her point of view. Although, Briony shows signs of regret, we’ll never really know what went through that girl’s head when she accused Robbie of assaulting Lola.

On the surface, one could say that Briony was naive and her cousin Lola influenced her to believe that Robbie was indeed a sex maniac. However, part of her hatred towards Robbie also stemmed from rejection. You see, Briony used to have a crush on the young man, but ever since, that lake incident she stopped having feelings for him. Let me remind you that, the girl was fake drowning at the lake just to test whether Robbie was going to save her or not. Robbie being the decent human being that he is, saved the little brat. The foolish attempt to seek Robbie’s attention led the young man to angrily scold Briony. Needless to say, the little girl was a bit butt-hurt by Robbie’s harsh words.

So there are strong reasons to believe that Briony might have lied out of spite too. Now that the little girl no longer has a crush on Robbie, he’s just a man and nothing more. Before the lake incident, Briony really liked Robbie and she wouldn’t think anything bad about him. After the scolding, Robbie just turned into this “evil man” who rejected and humiliated her. This is of course, Briony’s childish interpretation about what happened at the lake. In reality, Robbie was really mad because the little girl made him worry for nothing. For a brief moment, Robbie really thought that Briony was in danger, that’s why he got so mad when he realized the little girl was faking the whole thing.

It’s safe to say that Briony has a bias towards Robbie, she already deems him as evil, no matter what. That’s why she thought the young man forced Cecilia to undress, only to later “assault her” before dinner. That skewed logic together with Lola’s malicious words about Robbie was the lethal combination that led Briony to lie that night. However, the little girl didn’t know that she was lying at the time. Briony really thought she was telling the truth and that her contempt for Robbie had a reason to be. Another instance that confirms Briony’s bias is Lola’s assault. Before her cousin was able to tell her who did it, Briony already assumed it was Robbie. Even when she saw Paul assaulting Lola, her mind still insisted that it was Robbie, that’s how much Briony hated the young man.

Now, let’s head to the second most intriguing question: why did Lola lie? Why didn’t Briony’s cousin tell people that Paul was the creep that assaulted her?

Why did Lola lie?

Things are going to get a bit controversial here. So far, most of us have been assuming that Lola was a victim of sexual assault. When Briony witnessed a man on top of Lola, she immediately assumed that it was rape. However, was it though?

Lola’s reaction after the incident is a little suspicious to say the least. First, she kept asking Briony whether she saw the man or not. However, Lola wasn’t asking Briony whether she saw the perpetrator or not. There was something off about her reaction. Instead of feeling some sort of relief for having an eye witness to testify the assault, Lola was completely distraught by the fact that Briony saw the man on top of her. But why?

It’s crazy to assume that Lola didn’t want the family to know who her rapist was, but maybe we are missing a little detail. What if it wasn’t rape? What if it was consensual sex? We only assumed that it was rape, because Briony told us so. However, what does she know? Remember, this is the same girl who thought Robbie “attacked” her sister Cecilia. At this point, her “truths” hold very little value.

The second argument against Lola’s alleged rape would be Paul’s reaction to the whole incident. Let’s assume for a moment, that Paul raped Lola. The man was napping when the news broke. If Paul really did it, would he be that calm? I think not. Here’s a personal theory: the two did it, consensually. However, it would be a scandal if anyone found out about it. Remember, it’s 1935 and sex before marriage is a big no-no in that era. So, in order to divert attention, Paul and Lola needed a scapegoat: Robbie. Now, if Robbie Turner was the son of someone wealthy, would they still be able to pull that off? Probably not. However, Robbie was the housekeeper’s son.

Now, Lola might not be a victim of sexual assault, but Paul is still a creep. That’s very evident during their first interaction. No man shouldn’t be looking at an underage girl like that. By the way, Paul and Lola might have been fooling around for a while. Remember the marks on Lola’s body? The twins didn’t do it. In hindsight, the creep was already trying to get his hands on Lola long before dinner.

This theory might explain why Lola decided to marry her “rapist”. In a way, they were both accomplices of what happened to Robbie Turner. Having said that, the marriage was sort of an arrangement to prevent Paul and Lola from testifying against each other: they were guilty of putting an innocent man in jail. At this point, Paul and Lola are no less guilty than Briony for what happened to Robbie. All these three people destroyed a young man’s life: one told a lie and the other two decided to omit the truth.

Briony Tallis – Character Analysis

So who is Briony Tallis? A spoiled little brat? Or a very naive girl who didn’t know better? She might be a weird combination of both, that’s why it’s hard to tell whether Briony is truly sorry for what she did.

atonement 2007 briony tallis

Despite of what Briony did, she’s not necessarily a bad person. However, Briony does have a very strong sense of entitlement and morality. That alone already makes her a very unreliable narrator, because she tends to have a skewed perception of reality. People like Briony, think they are always in the right and act like the world owes them something. Having said that, can someone with that profile truly grasp the meaning of atonement?

Briony was thirteen years old when she accused Robbie of raping her cousin Lola. However, can naivety and bad influences (Lola) excuse Briony’s actions? Although, Briony was still a child, she was old enough to know better. Why didn’t she question? Here’s the thing, Briony’s inflated ego blinded her from seeing the real truth. At the time, Briony had so much contempt for Robbie that she let her own personal emotions blur the reality. Despite of her young age, she should have questioned whether the real Robbie Turner would ever commit such heinous acts.

It’s clear that Briony is aware that what she did was wrong. However, that’s not what upsets her the most. She’s angry at herself. It all goes back to Briony making everything about herself. You see, Briony only wants Cecilia to forgive her because she wants to lessen her guilty. Young Briony would often pride herself for doing the right thing. Therefore, when she told that awful lie and later realized that it was a mistake, that started to weigh heavily on her conscience.

When Briony wrote her final book, she gave a happy ending to Cecilia and Robbie’s story. But what’s the point? They are already dead. Having said that, that only goes to show Briony’s strong sense of entitlement. During her final speech, Briony was trying to convince the audience that she gave Cecilia and Robbie back their happiness. But, did she though? Let’s not forget that Briony was the one who caused havoc in their lives with her reckless lie. The way how Briony justifies herself only further proves how she still tricks her mind into believing that she’s in the right. Having said that, Briony hasn’t really changed at all. Old Briony is just a more sophisticated liar.

Briony’s entitled mindset extends not only to her writing but to her personal relationships too. She feels entitled to people’s appraisal and love. For instance, when young Briony had a crush on Robbie, she thought the young man should be nice to her too, which he was. However, Robbie Turner had every right to scold Briony when she pulled that foolish act at the lake. Sadly, that’s not how Briony read the situation. She just thought Robbie was being mean to her because he didn’t like her. What Briony didn’t know was: unlike creepy Paul, Robbie only had eyes for Cecilia, a grown woman.

After Robbie’s conviction, Cecilia made it very clear that she was never going to forgive Briony for what she did. Although, it might sound harsh, her older sister had a point: you can’t destroy people’s lives, write a couple of apology letters and expect everything to resume to normal. That’s not how life works. That said, is it fair for Briony to never get a pardon from Robbie or Cecilia? Maybe.

Throughout the film, it’s clear that Briony tries to make amends with the past. First, she decides not to pursue an higher education, instead, she becomes a nurse as a way to repent for her “sin”. Second, Briony writes a tell-all book to clear Robbie’s name and expose those who omitted the truth. However, is that enough? Well, Briony did gave up something that she really wanted, but let’s not forget that her awful lie wrecked two people’s lives. A man went to jail for a crime he did not commit and her sister was never able to be together with the man she loved.

Final Thoughts

Atonement is a film about complex emotions. Briony Tallis is a very interesting character to say the least, because one never knows what’s really going on in her head. On the surface, Briony really seems to be sorry for what she did. However, there are also other moments, when she slips and shows her true colours. For instance, the final interview. Even though, the ending is about Cecilia and Robbie, Briony still manages to make it about herself by saying that she gave them their happiness back. Ironic isn’t it?

The two real victims in Atonement were definitely: Robbie and Cecilia. Someone just robbed them of having a future together. Although, the World War II background theme is present throughout all the film, Atonement is not about war. The story is a deep study about the terrible ramifications that certain actions can have. Atonement also highlights the irreversibility of certain decisions. Briony used her whole life / existence to atone that one terrible mistake she did at thirteen years old.

The acting in Atonement was simply impeccable and engaging. Keira Knightly was captivating as the beautiful Cecilia Tallis. James Mcvoy gave a really strong performance as the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner. Saoirse Ronan was great as Briony Tallis. She played her with ambiguous undertones, which only goes to show the great actress that she already was back then.

Overall, Atonement is a beautiful film. By the way, the ending was bittersweet and daunting. The film ends with Robbie and Cecilia reunited which is a sweet sight, but it’s also incredibly heartbreaking because we already know that’s not how their story ended. The contrast between the two narratives (fiction and reality) is the element that makes Atonement such an unforgettable film. Needless to say, the music was sublime and really elevated Atonement to another level.