Surprised by Oxford is a romantic drama written and directed by Ryan Whitaker, based on Carolyn Weber’s memoir from her time at Oxford University pursuing her doctorate. Caro (Rosev Reid) is an accomplished student, having won a scholarship to Oxford, but her youth has been turbulent and she comes to England reserved and slow to make friends. An older student named Kent Weber (Ruairi O’Connor) takes an interest in her and offers to help her with her computer and adjust to life in Oxford. After a series of false starts, she warms up to him. He’s handsome and reasonably charming, but he’s a bigoted Christian, and his interest in religion is off-putting, both to Caro and to the audience. He burns with a fire of confidence in his beliefs and perfectly masters the courage of his convictions. It’s special for someone so young.
“… at Kent Christian faith debate leads her to a different perspective on her study of the Romantics…”
She is an agnostic with atheistic tendencies. Her early life experiences left her scarred and cynical. She first saw her friendship with Kent as a distraction and, in fact, that’s what her Oxford school adviser told her. She then slowly begins to realize that Kent’s discussion of the Christian faith is leading her to a different perspective on her study of the Romantics at Oxford. In particular, Milton and CS Lewis both seethe, and she begins to consider their approaches to faith as well as their contributions to literature.
The title of the film is taken from Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by joy, in which he describes his youth and his conversion to Christianity. Famously, he expressed a crisis of faith to his friend JRR Tolkien, who asked him to walk the grounds of Oxford and persuaded him to hold on to his faith. After this event, Lewis turned his literary efforts to Christian allegory in books like The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis offered an explanation of the religious impulse as a purposive construct based on “inconsolable longing”. It is a notion that figures prominently in the story of Caro’s quest for meaning. The film can lead us down a rabbit hole of researching these ideas, which is something good art should do, sparking a curiosity that lives beyond the end credits.