It's really no secret that faith-inspired cinema has always had a place within the imaginary walls of Indy's Heartland International Film Festival. In the 31-year-old fest's earliest days, one could find everything from true faith-based motion pictures to official selections from the more niche world of LDS cinema to films that simply explored what it means to "believe."
As Heartland's cinematic horizons have broadened, films inspired by faith and transformation continue to have a home in this acclaimed festival that celebrates the power of film to transform individuals, families, communities, and the world. In the 2022 Heartland International Film Festival, one such film is writer/director Ryan Whitaker's intelligent, curious, and emotionally honest Surprised by Oxford. Surprised by Oxford is based upon a memoir by Carolyn Whitaker and tells the story of Caro (Rose Reid), a brilliant but guarded young woman who arrives at Oxford via scholarship determined to focus all her energies on completing her Ph.D.
Of course, it takes little cinematic insight to know this will not entirely be the case.
Caro's early life was turbulent, a turbulence she is for the most part trying to set aside. She is reserved and not easy to make friends, though an older student named Kent Weber (Ruairi O'Connor) takes interest in her and initially this feels like somewhat more of a mentoring presence though it's impossible to not recognize that he's also attractive and more than a little charming.
Caro finds this burgeoning friendship a bit distracting, perhaps moreso because this young man is an unabashed Christian very comfortable with and open about his faith while Caro could be described as leaning toward Atheism. However, as their friendship grows Caro finds that it also positively influences her academically as she finds the subject of faith entering her studies of the Romantics.
Having its world premiere at Heartland, Surprised by Oxford is that rare faith-based/inspired film where you enter it expecting, perhaps, yet another badly acted, artificially decorated, and preachy film about faith and are instead treated to what is one of 2022's most intelligent, beautiful films about faith. Cinematography by Edd Lukas is warm and immersive, though if we're being honest it's also hard to make Oxford look bad. It's a beautiful setting and Lukas makes sure we realize its beauty by immersing us in the environment and these relationships. Nick Box's original score for the film is similarly heartfelt in all the right ways and complement's the film's story without ever directing it. It's quite lovely.
Surprised by Oxford benefits greatly from strong performances by both Rose Reid and Ruairi O'Connor, both subtly finding the nuances that makes them both different yet very similar. It's a joy watching Reid unfold Caro's character over the course of the film. Likewise, O'Connor's Kent could have so easily become a one-note caricature and yet never does. He's actually a rather inspired human being.
The film's title is taken from C.S. Lewis's Surprised by Joy and, indeed, anyone familiar with that book will find inevitable parallels here that are intelligently realized without ever being manipulative or maudlin. There are differences, of course, and Whitaker does a marvelous job of making sure this is a film that stands on its own.
While Surprised by Oxford occasionally does tap into that feel-good spirit a bit strongly, for the most part Whitaker keeps thing grounded in realism and with a light emotional resonance that inspires without crossing the line into preachy.
As a fan of nearly all things British stage and cinema, I also greatly appreciated the presence of such British household names as Phyllis Logan (Downton Abbey), Mark Williams (Father Brown), and two-time BAFTA nominee Simon Callow as Oxford academics.
I'm not quite sure that I expected it, but Surprised by Oxford is a quite lovely film and one of the 31st annual Heartland International Film Festival's indie gems this year. As it's only starting on its festival journey, one can hope that it finds the audience it deserves as this is without question a sublime example of how faith-inspired cinema should be done.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic