"Atonement" Movie Plot Summary

by Clayton Yuetter

"Atonement" is a drama based on the book with the same title by English writer Ian McEwan. Set in England in the 1930s, it tells how a child's misunderstandings and jealousies can have severe consequences. Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old aspiring writer, wrongly accuses her sister's lover of raping another girl. The accusation separates her sister and her lover, and it fills Briony with a remorse she never sheds.


Cecilia Tallis, Briony's older sister, falls in love with Robbie Turner, the family servant's son. The family likes Turner, and it paid for his education at Cambridge. He plans on attending medical school shortly. Briony has a crush on Turner, and she forced him to save her from drowning. Also staying with the family are young relatives, including 15-year-old Lola Quincey. Briony's brother brings home a friend, Paul Marshall, who flirts with Lola and expresses a sexual interest.

Briony's Lie

Briony sees Cecilia and Turner by the fountain in the lawn. Cecilia strips to her underwear and dives in. Briony is confused by the sexual tension. Later, after she reads a sexually explicit note Turner wrote for Cecilia, Briony accidentally walks in on her sister and Turner having sex. Lola's brothers go missing, and during the search Lola is raped by Marshall. Although Lola does not know who her attacker is, Briony does. But Briony tells authorities that it was Turner.

The Consequences (Spoilers)

Turner is immediately taken into custody and sent to war. Cecilia becomes a nurse. They are able to meet briefly, and thereafter send letters to each other, desiring nothing more than to be together again. However, Turner dies of septicemia and they are never able to fulfill their desperate love. Briony gives up her placement at a prestigious university to train as a nurse. Marshall ends up marrying Lola.

Briony's Atonement (Spoiler)

In the movie, Briony goes back to tell Cecilia that she is going to clear Turner's name, and finds the two of them together. Later, we learn that this did not happen, that instead it was a scene in the final book Briony wrote before her death at an old age. She reveals that she had been living with the guilt for her entire lifetime and decides to give Cecilia and Turner the happy ending they never got in real life.