fri 12/07/2024

Surprised by Oxford review - wishy-washy romance ticks the sightseeing boxes | reviews, news & interviews

Surprised by Oxford review - wishy-washy romance ticks the sightseeing boxes

Surprised by Oxford review - wishy-washy romance ticks the sightseeing boxes

Ryan Whitaker's film of Carolyn Weber's memoir of Christian conversion pulls its religious punches

Kent Weber (Ruairi O’Connor) shows Caro Drake (Rose Reid) the wayTrafalgar Releasing; Chris Cox

The misty streets and lofty spires of Oxford star in this adaptation of Carolyn Weber’s 2011 memoir, Surprised by Oxford, in which she finds God while studying for an MPhil in English literature.

Perhaps wisely, director and co-writer Ryan Whitaker steers clear of Carolyn’s conversion and the long-winded, theological agonising of the memoir, but this vaguely religious, Jesus-lite rom com, co-written by Weber, feels wishy-washy – though its cast, which includes Simon Callow, Mark Williams and Michael Culkin, lends it pizzazz. And it ticks all the Oxford sightseeing boxes, with William Holman Hunt’s “The Light of the World” painting at Keble College’s side chapel playing its part in Carolyn’s spiritual journey.

In 1994, Caro Drake (an elegant Rose Reid) is a Canadian student on a fully funded graduate Commonwealth scholarship at Oxford, specialising in the Romantic poets. She’s always been a perfectionist, an academic over-achiever with a troubled home-life - her unreliable dad (Dean Shortland) was investigated by the FBI and lost all the family’s money. Aged about 10, she told a school board that her dream in life was to get a doctorate.

At six she was reading The Aeneid. Her dad, in his optimistic days, told her to cross out the word "can’t" in the dictionary. But in spite of her straight As, her work lacks spiritual depth, as her poetry teacher in Canada, Professor Deveaux (Tyler Merritt) points out when she proudly presents a feminist, anti-patriarchal reading of John Donne’s sonnet XIV – “Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for You.” She’s missed Donne’s subtle point, he tells her. “Your purpose here in life is to discern the real thing from the bullshit, and then to choose the non-bullshit. Think of the opportunity that God has given you to study as the means by which to attain your own personal bullshit detector.”

His words strike a chord. Her mother’s a Catholic, though not a particularly staunch one, and her siblings, back in London, Ontario, are non-believers. But at Oxford, where for the first time she doesn’t have to take a part-time job to pay for tuition, she will confound their expectations. She falls asleep on the coach from London, gets off at the wrong stop, drags her suitcases across town to her college, given a fictional name here – in the book, she’s at Oriel – where she stumbles over the threshold. A perky porter wearing a funny hat is waiting to give her the keys to her tiny room with its view of a brick wall.surprisedCaro is outwardly cool and self-possessed. She may be searching for meaning but comes across as rather arrogant and smug. She’s soon discussing Milton with jovial Professor Nuttham (Mark Williams, pictured above, on splendidly twinkly form), drinking sherry, wearing sub-fusc and attending High Table dinners, where she’s bamboozled by terribly long Latin graces.

At one of these she discusses spirituality and science with eminent scientist Dr Sterling (Simon Callow), who believes that science is not at odds with faith and sees the interconnectedness of God’s design everywhere. There are signs all over the place, it seems, waiting for her to interpret. The provost, Regina Knight (Phyllis Logan; Mrs Hughes from Downton Abbey, pictured below), is particularly kind to her, even inviting her to stay in her idyllic Cotswold cottage after Caro has a very unlikely melt-down in the Bodleian library (she’s banned, not surprisingly, for breaking her pen and spilling ink on an ancient book).

Her two sparky best friends, Linnea (Jordan Alexandra) and Hannah (Emma Naomi), encourage her on the path to true love with committed Christian Kent Weber (Ruairi O’Connor; The Morning Show), the tall, dark, handsome American – they call him TDH - who introduces her to CS Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, which she reads obsessively in picturesque spots all over town.surprised1In Weber’s book, their romance has far more dramatic tension because she has a tall, handsome, successful fiancé back in Canada. Will she remain engaged to him? No, because he doesn’t want to join her on her new Christian path. That would have made an interesting scene, as would her family’s reactions to her finding Jesus. In the movie, that’s all ignored, and instead virginity and Kent’s feelings about it come into play in a murky way.

As Kent’s last name is Weber, it’s pretty clear how this will turn out. A match made in heaven, though getting there takes them some years. “The truth indeed is strong, and you will know when you are properly ravished by it,” as Professor Deveaux told her. Before she marries Kent, she becomes the first female dean of St Peter’s College (she’s now on the faculty of a Christian college in Tennessee). Not exactly a Hallmark story, but this film veers perilously close, though, with secular success in mind, it might have been hard to tackle Weber’s religious themes head-on.


 It seems that the reviewer may have been disappointed by the romantic aspect of the story, expecting more complexity and emotional depth. However, they did appreciate the book's ability to transport readers to the sights and sounds of Oxford.

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