In 1935 England, 13-year-old Briony Tallis is from a wealthy family set to perform a play she has written for an upcoming family gathering. Looking out of her bedroom window, she spies on her older sister, Cecilia, and the housekeeper’s son, Robbie Turner, on whom Briony has a crush. During their argument near the fountain, Robbie accidentally breaks a vase and yells at Cecilia to stay where she is – so as to avoid cutting her feet on the broken pieces on the ground. Still angered, Cecilia then strips off her outer clothing, stares at him and climbs into the basin to retrieve one of the pieces. Briony misinterprets the scene as Robbie ordering her sister to undress and get in the water.
Robbie drafts a note to Cecilia to apologise for the incident. In one draft, designed only as a private joke, he confesses his sexual attraction to her in explicit terms. He then writes a more formal letter and gives it to Briony to deliver. Only afterwards does he realise he has given her the wrong letter. Briony reads the letter before giving it to Cecilia. Later, she describes it to her 15-year-old visiting cousin, Lola, who calls Robbie a “sex maniac”. Paul Marshall, a visiting friend of Briony’s older brother, introduces himself to the visiting cousins and appears to be attracted to Lola. Before dinner, Robbie apologises to Cecilia for the obscene letter but, to his surprise, she confesses her secret love for him. They proceed to make passionate love in the library. Briony walks in on them and thinks that Robbie is raping Cecilia.
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