Surprised by Oxford is a romantic drama written and directed by Ryan Whitaker, based on Carolyn Weber’s memoir of her time at Oxford University pursuing her Ph.D. Caro (Rose Reid) is an accomplished student, having earned a scholarship to Oxford, but her early life was 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 to adjust to life at Oxford. After a series of false starts, she warms up to him. He’s good-looking and reasonably charming, but he’s a Christian zealot, and his focus on religion is off-putting, both to Caro and to the audience. He burns with a fire of confidence in his beliefs and has complete command of the courage of his convictions. It’s peculiar for someone so young.
“…Kent’s discussion of Christian faith is leading her to a different perspective on her study of The Romantics…”
She’s an Agnostic leaning toward Atheism. Her early life experiences left her scarred and cynical. She initially experiences her friendship with Kent as a distraction and, in fact, is told so by her Oxford academic counselor. She then begins to slowly realize that Kent’s discussion of Christian faith is leading her to a different perspective on her study of The Romantics at Oxford. In particular, Milton and C.S. Lewis both bubble up, 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’ autobiography Surprised by Joy, in which he describes his early life and conversion to Christianity. Famously, he expressed a crisis of faith to his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, who asked him to walk the grounds of Oxford and persuaded him to hold fast to his faith. After this event, Lewis turned his literary endeavors toward Christian allegory in books like The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis posited an explanation for the religious impulse as a teleological construct based on an “inconsolable longing.” It’s a notion that figures prominently in the story of Caro’s search for meaning. The film may lead one down a rabbit hole of research on these ideas, which is something good art should do, sparking a curiosity that lives beyond the end credits.
"…Christian faith is leading her to a different perspective on her study"