Content Warning: The following article contains discussions about sexual assault. If you or someone you know has been the victim of sexual assault, help is available to help. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact the RAINN National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
In the third segment of Atonement, the audience encounters an elderly Briony, played by Vanessa Redgrave, who is interviewed on television about a book she is writing, described as an autobiographical novel, called Atonement. While being questioned about this, Briony reveals that Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) and Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) never got back together after the night Briony accused Robbie of raping Lola Quincey (Juno Temple).
This in turn proves that the middle part where Briony visits Cecilia and Robbie was fictional in the context of the film. The second segment revealed that Robbie and Cecilia were now living together as Briony tracked down her sister to ask her forgiveness for Briony’s allegations that led to Robbie’s imprisonment. Briony reveals that the truth is that Robbie died on the beaches of Dunkirk while awaiting his evacuation and Cecilia died during a bombing raid on London a few months later.
This suggests that any semblance of a happy ending for Robbie and Cecilia that audiences have seen up to this point was a pipe dream on Briony’s part, a way for her to rewrite her love story after years ago she was the reason for their separation was – the titular atonement. It also explains two other important facets of the story: why it showed Robbie’s time in Dunkirk, and why Briony is the character the story has focused on all along. In the case of Dunkirk, viewers actually saw Robbie’s final day and impending death. In the case of Briony, the story is a bit more complicated.