Atonement Ending, Explained
Adapted from the novel by Ian McEwan, Atonement is a tragic love story that depicts how a child’s misunderstanding complicates the romance between two adults. The movie begins in 1935 showing the mutual attraction between wealthy heiress Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and the housekeeper’s son, Robbie (James McAvoy). However, Cecilia’s sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan), misreads the situation and indulges in a lie about Robbie being guilty of sexual assault. Joe Wright’s movie goes on to span several decades in the lives of these characters, capturing the traumatic aftermath of lies, heartbreak, and war.
The ending of the Joe Wright movie shifts between tones seamlessly enough to shock first-time viewers. Dabbling in both imaginary utopian scenarios and real-life dystopian ones, the final scenes might also confuse audiences initially. But once all the pieces fall into place, empathy is bound to arise for the three main characters, especially for Briony, whose struggle for atonement is what defines the movie’s title. The ending of Atonement has endured since its release, imprinted in popular memory further due to the performances of its leads and Dario Marianelli’s equally tragic Academy Award-winning score.
Atonement‘s tragic epilogue reveals that Cecilia was killed during the Blitzkreig as she was trapped in the Balham Tube Station when it was bombed by German airplanes. Robbie, who had served in World War II in exchange for being released from prison, died in Dunkirk due to septicemia (blood poisoning). Only Briony survives the war, eventually becoming a successful writer. With Briony facing the toll of old age (now played by Vanessa Redgrave), it is revealed that her final novel, Atonement, is a semi-autobiographical work. Most of this fictional novel is revealed to be rooted in fact except for the part where Cecilia forgives her and settles down with Robbie.
Through a fictional happy ending, Briony hopes she can make things right. Using time jumps and multiple actors for Briony is integral in building up to this ending. From the Oscar-nominated performance by Saoirse Ronan in the movie, viewers see the confusion that 13-year-old Briony undergoes while making a serious allegation against Robbie, as she also blames him for sexually assaulting her cousin Lola (Juno Temple). Romola Gorrai’s portrayal of the girl at 18 shows some level of self-reflection while Redgrave’s role as an aging Briony perfectly embodies the tear-jerking ending. Despite uttering a lie at 13 years of age, Briony continues to bear its emotional burden all her life.
Despite Briony establishing that both her sister and her lover met tragic fates during World War II, Atonement still makes a final jump to Cecilia and Robbie playfully walking and running by the seashore. It is suggested that they are probably living by the sea just like they had intended to once they reunited. This is, of course, yet another imaginary scenario as the lovers could never meet during wartime or afterward. But the true nature of this scene is ambiguous. It might be a scene from Briony’s novel, which had a much happier ending. However, the scenes preceding Robbie’s death might suggest otherwise.
Given the surreal nature of some of Robbie’s scenes during the war, it is also possible that Atonement’s last scene might actually stem from Robbie’s imagination, perhaps as his final thoughts before he breathes his last breath. With most of his comrades dead and he mortally wounded, Robbie still imagines that he is cheerily passing through a carnival, watching movies, and singing merry songs with other soldiers. Of course, he never gets to enjoy such a life as he just ends up dying on the beach of Dunkirk. It’s clear that after his wounds got infected, Robbie hallucinated such merry thoughts while awaiting evacuation in Dunkirk.
A simplistic understanding of Atonement‘s story might make some viewers brand Briony as the villain. After all, it was her lie and testimony that caused a distance between Cecilia and Robbie. But what needs to be considered is that she was just in her early teens when all of this transpired. Atonement explores how a naive girl gets corrupted in the face of her own infatuation with an older man and an actual case of sexual assault involving her cousin and a different older man.
In one of his earliest roles, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Atonement‘s Paul, the actual culprit behind what happened to Lola. However, succumbing to pressure and based on her own suspicions about Robbie, Briony ends up pointing the finger at him. Accidentally reading Robbie’s sexually-explicit letter to Cecilia also led the girls to grow suspicious of him, with Lola even calling him a “sex maniac.” Obviously, Briony realizes her mistakes as she grows older, but by then, it is unfortunately too late. Lola is later revealed to have married Paul, so not just Robbie and Cecilia, but even Lola’s future adds to Briony’s guilt.
Compared to its movie adaptation, Ian McEwan’s period romance book Atonement has a gloomier end, with the final pages focusing on Briony’s life as an elderly woman. It is revealed that she is a successful author while Paul and Lola actually end up leading a happily married life. In the very end, while attending a birthday party at her childhood home, Briony finds children performing scenes from The Trials of Arabella, a play she had written years earlier. However, instead of the TV interview seen in the movie, the book focuses on a more self-reflective approach. The movie’s final shot by the sea is also not mentioned in the novel.
With Briony’s final monologue making for some of the most tragic quotes of Atonement, the book’s ending comes off darker in tone. The wordy description of Briony’s life as a solitary old woman adds to the burden that she’s been carrying all these years. With her penning her confession in the end — unlike the movie, which shows her book has already been published — her future is left uncertain. The reactions of her readers are left open to interpretation. Unlike the film adaptation, there’s not much to think about in terms of any “what if” situations for the couple either as the novel doesn’t mention anything beyond their death.
Not just Briony’s statements, but the war is also to blame for the distance that grew between Cecilia and Robbie. If the two actually survived the tragic events of World War II, there was still a chance for them to actually reunite and live happily by the sea. With Lola refusing to testify against her now-husband Paul, it was almost impossible to prove Robbie’s innocence. Still, at least Robbie would have been able to forgive Briony, giving her the much-needed atonement that she so desperately sought. The war setting in Atonement goes on to show how an already ruined relationship between lovers and sisters can be ruined even further.
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