Collateral Beauty (2016) : Movie Plot Ending Explained

Collateral Beauty was directed by David Frankel and has a big cast which consists of Will Smith, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley, Michael Peña, Naomie Harris, Jacob Latimore, Kate Winslet, and Helen Mirren. The film saw a weak reaction from the audience and bad reviews from critics. Well, it wasn’t a terrible film, it’s good for one watch. That said, we aren’t here to critique the movie. There are some aspects of the film that leave the viewer with doubts. Let’s talk about those. Here’s the plot and ending of the movie Collateral Beauty explained, spoilers ahead.

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Plot Explanation

What is Collateral Beauty?

The very idea of collateral beauty is that no matter how dark or how difficult the time is, there is something beautiful that is happening right there. You just have to look, you just have to see it. Most simplistically, it is “every cloud has a silver lining.”

Now, let’s walk through the events of the story in linear order…

Howard (Will) is a successful advertising executive and runs his firm with his partners Whit (Edward), Claire (Kate), and Simon (Michael). Howard is happily married to Madeleine (Naomie), and they have a daughter by the name of Olivia. When Olivia turns 6 years old, she dies from a rare form of cancer.


After this, Howard has a breakdown. He becomes clinically depressed and is unable to deal with any of his relationships. He breaks ties with his wife, Madeleine, after writing a note to her saying “If only we could be strangers again”. Madeleine tries to work it with Howard but is unable to get through. Over the years they do keep in touch. She, herself, is finding her way to get to terms with reality. At the hospital, just before her daughter dies, Death (Helen) pays her a visit in the form of a human. Please park your questions around this for a slight bit, we’ll get back to this. Over time Madeleine begins to lead group therapy sessions for other parents who have lost their children.

Time Passes

Howard becomes estranged from his business partners and work. The big clients of the firm eventually leave, and company heads towards bankruptcy.

  • A couple of years go by, Howard lives alone, barely sleeps, and lives the life of a recluse. His partners fear to lose the firm and everything that they have worked for. Each of his partners is plagued by their own personal problems.
  • Whit was caught cheating by his wife, and she’s divorced him. His daughter is angry with him, and he yearns for her love.
  • Claire has dedicated her entire life to the company and, as a result, could never have a relationship and, more importantly, become a mother. She longs to be a mother, but she finds that her time has run out.
  • Simon has cancer, and he’s dying. But he doesn’t want to tell his family for fear of the consequences.

A corporation is interested in buying the firm, but Howard is a 60% owner and refuses to sell. His partners, however, are desperate to sell.


Love, Time, Death

Ok, so, Amy (Keira), Raffi (Jacob) and Brigitte (Helen) are actually Love, Time and Death as human manifestations. Yes, they are not actors and going forward I’ll refer to them as Love, Time and Death.

Love, purposely, goes and stands in line for the audition for a new commercial. She talks to Whit and changes the line from “Life is found when you shed your skin” to “Shed your skin, find your life.” Whit finds this to hit the heart. She leaves, and Whit follows her. She goes into a small theatre where she begins to rehearse lines with Time and Death. Whit sees them, is impressed, has a word with them, and leaves. Love has drawn Whit to meet the trio, and Death tells her “well done.”

Whit’s Idea

Whit has an idea which he tells Simon and Claire. He figures the only way this can work is if they can show that Howard is not in a proper mental state to run the company. That way they will be able to sell the firm. They hire the same private investigator, Sally Price, who Whit’s wife hires to catch him cheating.

Sally follows Howard and intercepts letters he’s written to Love, Time and Death. Whit proposes that the three actors he met can play these manifestations and confront Howard. Sally can take videos of this and later use digital editing to remove the actors; making it looks like Howard is cuckoo. They approach who they think are the actors Amy, Raffi, and Brigitte. They offer them money to play their roles. The “actors” accept.

collateral beauty trio

Death mentions the rules here:

“We have the power to be seen by whomever we want, whenever we want.” This rule is already in play. Whit, Claire, and Simon already can see Love, Time and Death. Whit yearns for love, Claire feels like she’s fighting against time, and Simon is approaching death. They each need guidance. Howard needs the help from all three. Also, Sally is able to see Love, Time and Death, although we don’t know why.

Meanwhile, Howard goes to the support group sessions conducted by Madeleine. Here’s the odd bit. Howard hasn’t forgotten her. He’s so destroyed by what happened to their daughter that he genuinely feels that they were strangers again. Over time, he’s somehow convinced himself that dealing with Madeleine as a stranger is the only way he can ever speak to her. Madeleine understands his need to do so, and she plays along too. After the session, they talk. Howard asks for her name. She goes on to say “My daughter’s name was Olivia. She died of a rare form of brain cancer known as Glioblastoma Multiforme, or GBM for short. She was six years old. What was your daughter’s name, Howard?” This is Madeleine nudging Howard to confront his reality. He can’t get himself to.

Plan In Action

As the days go by, Love, Time and Death each meet Howard in turns. In his condition, he might have believed even actors to be manifestations. But in this case, they are actually manifestations talking to him.

Madeleine and Howard meet again, as strangers. She tells him the events of “her” daughters death and how an old lady next to her said, “Just be sure to notice the collateral beauty.” This is what we spoke of earlier, this was Death paying her a visit. Howard says that he’s been talking to Love, Time and Death. She asks him to answer them if they visit him again. Madeleine understands what Howard is going through and her suggestion is therapeutic.

That video though

The next time Howard lashes out at Death, Time and Love while Sally films it all. However, we aren’t shown how on earth this video was edited. The editor would have mostly seen Howard talking to thin air. He wouldn’t really have to “edit” anything. Ideally, he’d go back to Sally and say “what gives lady?”. We could assume that Love, Time and Death say that they would get the video edited as they are in the acting business. Anyhow, the video is somehow made ready.

Ending Explained

The partners show the video to the company lawyer who then questions Howard on who he’s talking to in the videos. Howard realizes that his partners have had him followed and taped. Howard then goes on to talk to each of them. He tells Claire that she’s sacrificed her personal life for the firm. That Simons’ not doing a good job of hiding his sickness and his family would be taken care of. And that he’s disappointed with Whit because he’s not fighting enough for his daughter. I believe this is Howard growing out of his state of depression (thanks to his meetings with Madeleine). He quickly signs the papers agreeing to sell the firm. Howard had also put part of his ownership in a trust in his daughter’s name. He also signs a legal certificate saying that she is no more. Howard couldn’t get himself to sign this earlier as it would mean confronting reality, which he’s been hiding from.

Claire meets Time to pay him, and he tells her that she doesn’t have to give birth to be a mother. That she could adopt. Whit meets his daughter and persists this time, and she agrees to meet him again the following day. Simon tells his wife about his condition.

The Revelation

Howard ends up at Madeleine’s place asking if he could spend Christmas Eve with her. She lets him in. Well, it is his home too. He’s just chosen to avoid facing that. As a stranger, he asks Madeleine if she’s been crying. She says that she was watching an old video of her daughter dancing with her husband. She asks if she could show it to him. Howard says no. She repeats that her daughter’s name was Olivia and how she had died. She returns him the note that reads “If only we could be strangers again.” We’re then shown a video of Howard playing with Olivia revealing that he is the husband. Madeleine finally gets Howard to say Olivia’s name, and he breaks down while accepting the reality of his dead daughter. As a quick flashback, we are shown Death telling Madeleine to notice the collateral beauty. In the final scene of the film Love, Time and Death look on as Howard and Madeleine take a walk in the park. While he can see them, Madeleine can’t. This is because Howard is currently in need of their help as he gets better. Madeleine has already had her support from Death long ago, she’s not presently in need of their aid and therefore can’t see them. The film ends.