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The Seven Sisters Cliffs and Coastguard Cottages from “Atonement”

The Seven Sisters in East Sussex
The Seven Sisters in East Sussex By Courtesy of Monique I. Vobecky
By Monique I. Vobecky, Crimson Staff Writer

There is one country that creates period films like no other — one that expertly utilizes its natural sprawling green fields and magnificent estates as the foundation for its world-renowned cinematic productions.

England, the site of numerous popular film locations, holds one of the most striking settings in cinema: the Seven Sisters, a stretch of sprawling cliffs in East Sussex. While also featured in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” I find the use of this site in Joe Wright’s “Atonement” to be one of the most visually and thematically striking locations in the historical drama genre. Naturally, this site was the first English film location I visited during my semester abroad.

Wright’s film, an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel of the same title, follows the devastating love story of Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie (James McAvoy) in England during World War II. After Cecilia’s little sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan), finds a compromising letter that leads her to falsely accuse Robbie of a crime, Robbie must join the English troops to avoid imprisonment. In the brief moments they can meet throughout the war, Cecilia and Robbie dream about a cottage they will own along the southern shore of England. They will spend their lives there together, free from the war and the wrongful accusation.

The Seven Sisters landmark — which features seven peaks on top of white limestone cliffs — is featured as a postcard in several parts of the film and is the backdrop of its ending scene. The cottage of the couple’s dreams is also set upon a small hill with the cliffs in the background.

To the film’s watchers, the cliffs are not only presented as a beautiful landscape. They signify what could be: a utopic future. In a sense, the white cliffs represent otherworldly happiness, a promised destiny just out of reach for those who desire it. The cliff scenes themselves are similarly ironic, as a life seemingly so simple is the most complicated to get.

The film concludes with Robbie completing his time as a soldier and meeting with Cecilia to live the life they dreamed of by the cliffs. However, as written in the novel, “Atonement” is actually a story written by Briony nearly 54 years later as a way to atone for her wrongful accusation and give the couple a happy ending. In reality, Cecilia and Robbie died separately during the war, never being able to live together by the cliffs.

For me, the Seven Sisters Cliffs make “Atonement.” Without the stunning depiction of a possible happy ending, the story’s twist ending holds little weight. It is in the film’s final scene, showing the couple running and laughing on the shoreline as Briony admits that they did not survive the war, that the film’s true devastation sinks in. Briony states that by ending her book with Cecilia and Robbie together at the cottage, she “gave them their happiness.” By setting up the only full scene at the cliffs with this quote, the film successfully aligns the viewer’s vision of happiness with the setting. With the film’s illustration of a fruitful life among stunningly white limestone cliffs, the possibility of a future becomes literally bright.

English period films hold an impressive power in shaping locations into transformative symbols. In this way, the locations in “Atonement” are strategically selected to be emblematic of the deepest sentiments of the novel it adapts. Not only are these locations visually appealing, but they intentionally evoke a sense of national English heritage.

Visiting this site in person felt like the future Cecilia and Robbie dreamed of in their last days. England’s stunning southern coast radiates an effortless tranquility, and picturesque lush hills expand as far as one can see. The heartbreakingly simple life the couple dreamed of is not solely a figment of Wright’s imagination, but instead a natural feature of this English landmark. Notably, the site does not fall victim to exploiting its beauty for tourism. To see the cliffs, there are no paved roads and shuttles, and visitors must scale the hills along dirt paths.

The Seven Sisters Cliffs thus remain untouched as if frozen in time. The site’s perennial quality highlights the film’s seamless reflection of the novel’s timeless themes. For as long as the cliffs remain standing, visitors can visit the site in the same way Cecilia and Robbie would have, making it a film location as immersive as any viewer would hope it could be.

—Staff writer Monique I. Vobecky can be reached at Follow her on X @moniquevobecky.

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