Irish poet and playwright W.B. Yeats once wrote, “It is love that I am seeking for, but of a beautiful, unheard-of kind that is not in the world”. Yeats’ romantic yearnings can certainly sound of a different time, especially in a present world where the day-by-day is predominantly governed by dating app swipes and the isolating effect of cellphones. It’s within that context of patently modern relationships and new norms where Ryan Whitaker’s sophomore directorial feature, Surprised by Oxford, charts an unorthodox trajectory that, on its face, could easily be dismissed by many as old-fashioned, saccharine melodrama. Based on a true story and adapted from Carolyn Weber’s memoir of the same name, Surprised by Oxford follows its heroine, Caro Drake (Rose Reid), an intellectually brilliant yet emotionally reticent American student who, as soon as she finds out she’s granted a scholarship to the prestigious Oxford University, enthusiastically endeavors to put her turbulent and scarring childhood years behind and head into a great unknown. In pursuing her Ph.D. in English literature — specifically, Romanticism — Caro embodies an unquenchable desire for knowledge, beauty, and poetry, all in hope of, perhaps, finding some elusive, ultimate truth and her raison d’être. She arrives at the bewitching fictional Tirian college, and she soon is accompanied by new friends Hannah (Emma Naomi) and Linnea (Jordan Alexandra), as well as tutoring professors and academics (each of whom plays their own role in Caro’s quest). All the while, we see the determined and guarded young woman frequently bumping into Kent (Ruairí O’Connor), a talented heartthrob who will of course provide the other half of the film’s romantic push-and-pull for the remainder of its runtime. Thankfully, Reid and O’Connor both offer relaxed, appealing onscreen presences and share a natural chemistry, a necessity for a film like this to work to any degree.
It’s the essential difference — also, the attraction — between these two young lovers that serves to anchor the film’s thought-provoking playfulness and dilemmas: the skeptical, quite difficult Caro is firmly committed to her search for an abstract truth, while Christian zealot Kent is more earthbound in his aspirations, struggling to win the heart of the woman he adores. Caro eventually comes to teach Kent about the obligations of romance, while he gradually brings her toward spirituality. It’s in Whitaker’s presentation and navigation of these polarities that Surprised by Oxford, despite its failure to really develop any deep emotional resonance or narrative thrust, manages to shape a successfully feel-good, small-scaled atmosphere where its Evangelical considerations can sit comfortably within the eye-candy visuals and awe-inspiring autumnal and wintry land/cityscapes — all of which are tangibly material rather than merely interstitial. The film’s aesthetic design effectively graces viewers with a cozy journey — or, more appropriately, a tour — away from the familiar present-day agitations we’re accustomed to and into a milieu of genuine serenity.
Roughly chaptered according to the school’s three annual terms — Michaelmas, Hilary, and Trinity — and formed in and around the architectural spaces of Oxford and its surroundings (local pubs, period-adorned classrooms, quiet libraries and bookstores), Surprised by Oxford gives Caro the room to move free-spiritedly, whether its strolling streets or putting her nose in a book. Whitaker neatly arranges his compositions — with an assist from cinematographer Edd Lukas — and deploys a smoothly-paced rhythm and an eloquent linguistic texture to establish a beguiling charm and quaintness. It’s impressive work, turning this in many ways quite typical “faith-inspired” narrative and its rather conventional, clichéd situations into a surprising fairytale of heartwarming love, historical appreciation, and mystical intervention. Surprised by Oxford’s classicist style and beauty — which resembles Ralph Lauren’s college and British countryside ad campaigns more than Harry Potter’s magical Hogwarts — aren’t enough to position the film as any kind of stealth masterpiece or profound treatise on faith or fate, but it does manage to situate the film quite comfortably above the stable of Hallmark’s releases it so superficially resembles, managing genuine artistry where elsewhere only cheap sentiment reigns.
DIRECTOR: Ryan Whitaker; CAST: Simon Callow, Ruairi O’Connor, Mark Williams, Rose Reid; DISTRIBUTOR: Trafalgar Releasing; IN THEATERS: September 27; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 42 min.