‘Surprised by Oxford’ movie: Remedying broken relationships

By Rusty Wright

(This article first appeared on WashingtonExaminer.com.)

Ever feel awkward opening yourself emotionally in a relationship?  Got any family issues that make trusting others difficult?  Does that affect your social life, job, or home life?  Do you ever use work, studies, or accomplishments to bolster your self-image when, inside, you’re hiding from others?  Perhaps you’ll resonate with this film’s protagonist.

Carolyn Drake, a brilliant student, receives a full scholarship to pursue her academic holy grail, an Oxford University doctorate.  Headstrong, determined, and deeply wounded by family desertion, she struggles with fears, love needs and relationship complexities. 

Surprised by Oxford, based on a true story, conveys Carolyn’s journey to reconcile her troubled family experience with her desires for friendship, romance, and finding her life’s purpose.  The film’s breathtaking Oxford scenery compliments its focus on reason, skepticism, romance, humor, sorrow, and fulfillment.

Daddy’s gone

“Caro,” as Carolyn is nicknamed, announced as a young child that her life’s desire was “a doctorate.”  Her childhood was difficult.  In some ways, she loved her father, but a sheriff’s arrest and domestic conflict removed him from her family.  He was seldom home.  Whenever he returned, so did trouble.

Caro mistrusted men, threw herself into her studies, and sought security in her accomplishments to hide herself from close relationships that might bring pain.  Into her Oxford life comes a male student she calls “TDH” (tall, dark, and handsome). 

Though initially guarded, Caro warms to his friendship but makes her independence clear, sometimes in humorous ways.  She rejects his chivalrous courtesies.  As they walk together on Oxford sidewalks, when he politely shifts positions to walk on the traffic side, she counters by maneuvering back to the traffic side. 

Relative truth?  Absolutely sure?

Caro enjoys Oxford’s diverse social and cultural opportunities, and her precise logic and courage guide her interaction with her classmates, TDH, and professors.  At a public lecture, a distinguished scholar asserts that truth is relative.  Caro asks him publicly, if all truth is relative, why should they believe him?  By his own reasoning, his denial of absolutes cannot be absolutely true.

As she and TDH grow closer, Caro finds herself opening up to him, in sometimes scary ways.  You see, TDH’s father is a pastor.  In her memoir, which inspired the film,  Caro notes similarities with the famous Dusty Springfield song, that the only one who could ever reach her was the “Son of a Preacher Man.”  But she says, “I had no real need of believing in men, God incarnate or otherwise.”

TDH respects her faith-skepticism and sympathizes with her psychological distress, while encouraging her to consider looking outside her humanity for ultimate security.  Caro peppers TDH with important questions such as: Why do men treat women so poorly?  How could a loving God allow evil and suffering?  Why should I believe the Bible?  How do we know Jesus is who he claimed to be? 

Testing men

“Testing men,” she says in her memoir, “was one of my little hobbies.”  But she feels “something is missing in my life,” so she keeps searching.  In the film, TDH recommends C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy.  Caro found intriguing the argument that Jesus’ claim to deity logically allowed just three possibilities for his true nature: he was either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. 

She decides to dig deeper.  Along the way, she grapples with her emotional insecurities and family conflicts, reflecting that, “I would have traded every accomplishment for a close relationship with my father.”  She experiences a roller coaster relationship with TDH. 

Reason?  Romance?  Reconciliation?  I won’t spoil these outcomes for you.

Surprised by Oxford had me reminiscing about my own time there, as well as my own psychological struggles, relationship rides, emotional intelligence development (still learning), and faith skepticism.  An entertaining, thought-provoking, moving film.

www.SurprisedByOxford.movie   In US, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia theaters September 27.

Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents.  He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively. www.RustyWright.com

Copyright © 2023 Rusty Wright

#     #     #

Editors:  Note pictures below.  For access to these and more, check here, here, here, here, here, here, and here

Surprised by Oxford movie poster.
Caro Drake (Rose Reid) on Oxford streets.
TDH (Ruairi O’Connor).
TDH (Ruairi O’Connor) and Caro (Rose Reid) in an Oxford museum.
TDH (Ruairi O’Connor) and Caro (Rose Reid). Photo: Chris Cox