I was a big fan of Carolyn Weber’s memoir, Surprised by Oxford, when I read it a decade ago. For someone who loves CS Lewis, spent time in the “City of Dreaming Spiers,” and isn’t afraid to admit enjoying a good, old-fashioned romance, Weber’s book checked all the boxes. In addition to painting a beautiful portrait of Oxford and narrating a page-turner romance, Weber’s book recounts her Christian conversion story, which unfolded in a manner not unlike that of Lewis himself (hence the title’s nod to Surprised by Joy).
It’s a brilliant book, full of drama, so the most surprising thing about Surprised by Oxford being adapted as a movie is that it took 10 years to happen. The second most surprising thing? It’s a faith-friendly film that’s actually good.
Entertaining, Not Preachy
It’s a rare pleasure as a Christian film critic to watch a “faith-based” film and smile more than I cringe. Written and directed by Ryan Whitaker, Surprised by Oxford prioritizes things often neglected in faith-based entertainment: stylistic beauty, smart story, good acting, and a goal of entertaining the audience more than preaching to them.
Surprised by Oxford—Which just had its world premiere at the Heartland International Film Festival — is visually lovely. Shot on location in Oxford, the film lets the city, in all its fabled majesty, shine. I’m not sure Oxford needs more tourists, but a film like this doubles as a virtual tour of the major sites. The Bodleian Library, the Sheldonian Theater, Keble College, Blackwell’s Bookshop, iconic pubs (The King’s Arms, The Eagle and Child), the high street, the Randolph Hotel, the University Church of St. Mary, and Addison’s Walk all get air time . It’s a romanticized view of Oxford, to be sure, but totally fitting for a film about romanticism and the theological power of beauty.
It’s a rare pleasure as a Christian film critic to watch a ‘faith-based’ film and smile more than I cringe.
Surprised by Oxford is also entertaining. The film’s leads are well cast, and the chemistry between Carolyn / “Caro” (Rose Reid) and Kent (Irish actor Ruairi O’Connor) is both believable and amusing, even if their banter sometimes feels like a classic Hallmark movie (not a bad thing!). I particularly enjoyed the veteran British thespians in the roles of Oxford professors — especially the great Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes on Downton Abbey), Simon Callow, and Mark Williams (Father Brown). At times it does feel like there are too many characters, however (a common problem in page-to-screen adaptations). An additional edit might have cut some of the peripheral characters and given space to developing the central relationships even more.
The film is admirably concise — 90 minutes long, adapted from a 480-page book — but it might be too concise. At the end I felt there were some gaps in the drama, especially in the third act. The final “two years later” scene feels abrupt. Still, in a genre where narrative is often heavy-handed and leaves nothing for the audience to fill in, too little exposition is preferable to too much.
It’s a risky tightrope to walk within the confines of the faith-adjacent film genre while also attempting to make a movie non-Christians might actually watch and enjoy. That’s the perennial paradox for filmmakers of faith: If the film is too edgy or artsy or not “feel good” enough, will evangelical audiences embrace it? And yet if the movie is only preaching to the choir, what’s the point? By seeking the approval of the faithful, an artist risks alienating seekers. And vice versa. I encourage young Christian filmmakers to lean into the paradox, however, as challenging as it is. In years to come, I want to write more reviews of “faith-based film masterpieces.”
Surprised by Oxford may not be a masterpiece, but it certainly elevates the genre. Aside from an awkward amount of PG-13 profanity (perhaps realistic for the characters, but out of place in a film about the good, true, and beautiful), the film strikes the “dual audience” balance pretty well.
It’s an apologetics movie in a sense, though decidedly not in the vein of the God’s Not Dead franchise. Whereas those films treat story as a mechanism for advancing an argument, Whitaker’s film focuses on good storytelling as a value in and of itself. It just so happens that the story here is about a secular scholar who gradually opens up to God while at Oxford, so defenses of faith and arguments for God show up organically as the story progresses.
Surprised by Oxford is an apologetics movie in a sense, though decidedly not in the vein of the God’s Not Dead franchise.
More importantly, Surprised by Oxford‘s story has a heart and a pulse. It’s not just about cerebral arguments. It’s about embodied desire and existential longing. In other words, it’s human. This is why it rises above most in the faith-based film genre. It recognizes that things like romance, comedy, whimsy, beauty, melancholy, longing, and sharing pints with friends are not extraneous to the “more important” goal of communicating truth. Rather, these things are part of how we locate what’s true. This is the discovery Caro makes, as Lewis did. Our unsatisfied longings, restlessness, and divine discontentment — the gut-level feeling of joyful ache, which Lewis calls sehnsucht—Can lead us to God. “Maybe we reach for something,” Kent says to Caro, “because that thing is there.”
Beauty and Truth
When someone like Lewis unpacks the “inconsolable longing” of sehnsucht so evocatively, as he does in his narrative of conversion, Surprised by Joy, it becomes a model for how Christians in a secular age might engage unbelievers in faith conversations. We shouldn’t ignore the “head” (logic, debate, rational proofs, defenses of truth) —Lewis certainly didn’t. But we dare not ignore the “heart” either. Truth and beauty needn’t be pitted against each other. They work together to lead us to God, who is, after all, Truth and Beauty.
When we encounter staggering beauty, it bears witness to a truth we can’t deny. And when we encounter truth, it ravishes us.
This is what Surprised by Oxford captures well. It’s a film that values truth and beauty as two sides of the same coin. When we encounter staggering beauty, it bears witness to a truth we can’t deny. And when we encounter truth, it ravishes us like the most beautiful Friedrich painting or Keats poem. Knowledge, as Caro discovers, can only get her so far. She’s made of the same stuff as any of us: both rationality and romance. We are designed not just to know, but also to love.
Humans aren’t emotionless automatons sealed off from the world. We’re porous, deeply relational beings. We’re not just data-crunching machines. We are lovers, worshipers, magnetically drawn to the Lover of our souls. God made us this way.
The brilliance of Carolyn Weber’s book, which the movie captures too, is that the story of God grabbing hold of Caro (conversion narrative) and Kent pursuing her (romance) aren’t vastly different genres smashed together awkwardly. The latter is an earthly picture of the former. If we see beauty in Kent’s old-fashioned, chivalric, persistent, and finally sacrificial pursuit of Caro (and I hope we can, even in our cynical age), it’s because this romance offers a glimpse of a divine reality.
We are the beloved, and there is a Lover. He’s a pursuing God. He knocks on the door of our heart (Rev. 3:20), as pictured in a William Holman Hunt painting that figures prominently in the film. He’s knocking because he wants us to commune with him, to receive him as the satisfaction for which we long. Will we let him in? That’s the central question for Caro, with regard to Kent — and more importantly, with regard to Christ.