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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (29/9/2023)

Updated: Oct 1, 2023

(Reviews of Surprised By Oxford; and A Year in a Field)


SURPRISED BY OXFORD.


Christian cinema has a bad reputation with non-believers, with the UK response to acclaimed titles like Kevin Sorbo's Let There Be Light (2017) and Andrew and Jon Erwin's I Can Only Imagine (2018) being sceptical at best and derisive at worst. There's no denying that film-makers intent on proselytising tend to put greater emphasis on the message than narrative and characterisation. While it can hardly be described as subtle in its discussion of faith, Ryan Whitaker's Surprised By Oxford skirts the pitfalls better than most in adapting the Carolyn Weber memoir that takes its title from the same work, Surprised By Joy, that recently inspired Norman Stone's biopic, C.S. Lewis: The Most Reluctant Convert (2021).


Devastated by the arrest of her Nashville businessman father, Carolyn Drake (Rose Reid) throws herself into her studies and breezes through high school and university. However, Dr Devereux (Tyler Merrit) takes her to task for describing John Donne's Holy Sonnet 14: `Batter My Heart, Three-Person'd God' as a `classic subversion by the dominant patriarchy, whether it be the church or the male construction of God, of the threat posed by maternal power or the feminine spiritus'. Moreover, he warns her `anything without eternal significance is doomed to futility' and that `He who increases knowledge increases sorrow.'


When she's offered a full-scholarship to study the Romantics at Tirian College, however, she decides it's a risk worth taking, especially if it means no longer having to waitress part-time at a pizza joint where the male customers ogle her. Yet, just about the first thing she sees in the City of Dreaming Spires is too much of corridor neigbour, Edward (Louis Landau), whose towel slips down when he goes to shake hands after ranting about his malfunctioning shower.


She gets off to a better start with Linnea (Jordan Alexandra), on being welcomed to the university at a ceremony in the Sheldonian Theatre, and Hannah (Emma Naomi), on sitting down to eat in hall. She informs Caro that Regina Knight (Phyllis Logan) is Tirian's first female provost, as she reads grace in Latin. After supper, they go to the chapel, where the atheist Caro has to look up the words to the Creed.


In her first Michaelmas tutorial with Professor Margot Rutledge (Lourdes Faberes), Caro is intimidated, as she's quite a character. As is Agnes (Karen Lewis-Attenborough), the librarian who ticks off Caro for using ink around precious books. She's still complaining about her when she gets drunk on Bucks Fizz at a party and she's walked back to her room by Kent Weber (Ruairi O'Connor), who offers to help her facetime her mother, Ann (Emily Dunlop), through her laptop. Hannah and Linnea spot straight away that he likes Caro, but she has no intention of getting entangled.


Having fled Kent's Chapel Quad room after she spots a text about a hot virgin on his phone, Caro attends a tutorial on Sir Walter Scott with Professor McTeague (Michael Culkin). She likes his eccentricity and also warms to Professor Terence Nuttham (Mark Williams) during a session on John Milton's Paradise Lost, although it's spoilt when Kent shows up and she makes it clear that she doesn't think they can be friends.


Intrigued by a note, while Elton (Nicholas Aason) the college porter is telling her about Adolf Hitler planning to make Oxford his capital, Caro rushes off to meet Kent at the Ashmolean Museum's rooftop restaurant. He tries to explain that he's a Protestant who believes in chastity, but Caro sneers at his faith and his hopes he has fun with his virgin. However, their argument continues during the next Milton tutorial, until Professor Nuttham suggests they stop for tea.


Linnea and Hannah are amused, although they take differing views to abstinence. Much to Caro's annoyance, she runs into Kent at a Christmas dinner for scientist Professor Sterling (Simon Callow), who discusses the equilibrium of existence and the possibility of living beyond death. The conversation is interrupted by a choir singing `Once in Royal David's City' and Caro returns to her room to find a drunkenly despondent Edward slumped outside his room.


Hilary Term begins with Kent trying to patch things up with Caro, but she's not interested until she sees an riverbank screening of Hugh Hudson's Chariots of Fire (1981) and she asks Kent to give his definition of pleasure after listening to Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) saying he feels God's pleasure when he runs. After mutual teasing about Caro having emotions, he takes her to Blackwell's to suggest she reads C.S. Lewis's Surprised By Joy, which she buys after feeling browbeaten by the Madgalen man's photograph in The Eagle and Child.


Following a montage showing Caro reading the text solely in picturesque outdoor places, she reports to Kent that she found parts of it poignant. They visit the Museum of Natural History and crack wise looking at the dinosaur skeletons, while he spins a yarn about experiencing yearning listening to the faint sound of Def Leppard's `Pour Some Sugar On Me'.


While drinking with Hannah, Edward, and Linnea, Caro notices the latter flirting with Irish priest, Fr Michael (Johnny Fairclough). He, however, is more interested in how Caro is getting on with Lewis and whether she is coming round to his views on the abundant life. The book is clearly distracting her, yet she avoids the scornful rebuke given to Black student Fred McCoy (Olisa Odele) for not learning a passage of Paradise Lost, as Nuttham uses Alexander Pope's Kew dog epigram to suggest that everyone bends the knee to a higher power.


Caro seeks out Regina, who tells her about the role that J.R.R. Tolkien's words about true myths played in Lewis's conversion. She also hints that great minds can succumb to desperation without the consolation of a deeper faith. Strolling in the cloisters, Caro confides in Kent that she clung to poetry after her father was arrested and has relied on it for inspiration and beauty ever since. But she concedes that there might be more she has yet to discover and this suspicion causes her to challenge Dr Condorson (Ed Stoppard) during a lecture and dispute his assertion derived from the Moro reflex in babies that humans all need something to cling to by averring that maybe they're reaching for something instead.


Kent is impressed by her readiness to argue and buys her a bike and they ride the streets at dusk. We see them strolling and chatting, but when their silhouetted heads come together in an underpass, Caro backs away and Kent is hurt. He's even more frustrated when she announces over tea in the Randolph Hotel that the secret law of the universe prevents them from dating and she stalks out.


When she misses a class with McTeague, Caro is warned that her scholarship will be rescinded if her standards continue to drop. Thus, when Kent calls round on the pretext of borrowing milk, she informs him that work has to come first and that she cannot be whatever it is he wants her to be.


She is still knuckling down in Trinity Term, but Hannah knows she's unhappy and urges her to speak to Kent. However, she sees him with another woman in a bookshop and follows him to his room. He sees her, as he draws the curtains, and chases after her. Caro berates him for moving on so quickly and he reminds her that she pushed him away to pore over the words of dead people that she uses as a defence mechanism to avoid having to accept that her father betrayed her and that she needs to move on and trust someone else.


Studying late in the Bodleian, Caro snaps her pencil and loses her temper when Agnes pounces on her for using a pen. However, she snaps it and spatters a manuscript and she's locked in a room until Regina comes to collect her. She giggles at the sight of her blue hands and invites her to spend the weekend at her Cotswold cottage. When Caro tells Regina that her aim is to be as strong and independent in academe as she is, the Scot tells her about a maze near her home, where people rang a bell if they got lost. Smiling, she reveals that we all need the humility to admit we sometimes need help and Caro accepts that it's not always possible to do things alone.


Back in Oxford, Edward teases Caro about going to mass at Fr Michael's church. Hannah takes them to Keble College chapel to look at William Holman Hunt's `The Light of the World'. Edward munches on hosts from the altar and swigs back wine, while Caro notices that the door in the painting has no handle because it can only be opened from the inside.


At the college ball, McCoy recites Milton for Nuttham, the perpetually late Bill (George Jaques) delights McTeague by revealing a love of Scott, and Caro and Kent make up. They go to the top of St Mary's tower to gaze across the city. However, he breaks the news he is leaving that night for a new job in Washington, D.C. and Caro is left alone after they slow dance until his taxi comes. Wandering in the rain, she gets a ride home from a mounted policeman.


In voiceover, Caro questions Aristotle's theory of teleology and concludes that knowledge only gets human so far, as they are made for longing and are restless until they are ravished by the truth. She returns to her room and finds a card with a question mark.


Two years later, Caro is a tutor and she facetimes with Hannah and Linnea, who are working in an orphanage in India. She receives the latest in a line of ? cards and finds Kent in a gaggle of tourists behind the Bodleian. They kiss as the camera circles them before pointing up in a light shining from above. Closing captions reveal that Caro went on to become the first female dean of St Peter's College and married Kent after he proposed to her on a hill overlooking Oxford. Today, Carolyn Weber is the mother of four and regularly speaks on the intersection of literature and faith.


Largely eschewing the Bible bashing familiar from so many Christian films, this predictable, if presentable drama attempts a passable level of academic debate, as Caro comes to God through opening herself intellectually and spiritually to the prospect of redemption rather than simply experiencing a blinding-light conversion. We never actually see her pray or attend church for a service after her initial visit to the college chapel, while the screenplay scrupulously avoids any discussion of the differences between the Catholic and Protestant versions of Christianity. As a consequence, this comes across more as a Mills & Boon saga with highbrow pretensions than a proselytising tract.


Rose Reid is plausible as the single-minded scholar, but she only has limited chemistry with Ruairi O'Connor, who has the thankless task of trying to be simultaneously cute and chaste without having any backstory or character depth to draw on. At least we get a preamble to discover the sources of Caro's hang-ups, although her blinkered pursuit of academic excellence and the need to help mom pay the bills seem to preclude any sort of social life. As a result, her sneering dismissal of Kent's celibacy seems like a dramatic gambit rather than something rooted in her own life experience.


This is one of several unpersuasive aspects of a story that appears to be taking place in the past - as the caption informs us that Caro is now a mother and a glass-ceiling shattering career woman - and yet which relies on a very modern mobile phone with a text screen, as well as a laptop capable of facetiming. Only Kent seems to possess a phone, however, while nobody seems to have the vaguest interest in the world outside their bubble.


Even details of the Oxford routine feel spurious. Caro is supposed to be reading for a DPhil, which tends to be an individual rather than a communal pursuit, as the candidate undertakes a unique area of research. Yet she attends group tutorials of a rather basic nature, which are apparently open to elective students who can drop in any time it suits the scenario.


The esteemed British actors playing the dons ham it up cornily, while some of the support playing is more than a little awkward. Nick Box's score also has its cloying moments, while editor Zach Prichard is overly fond of dreamy montages. But Edd Lukas's photography is splendid and Whitaker makes better use of Oxford than most.


He can't resist postcard views of the Radcliffe Camera and the Bridge of Sighs, while his creative geography is sometimes amusingly fanciful. At one point, Caro storms out of the Randolph tea room and emerges outside the New Bodleian (where her bike is left improbably unlocked). But Whitaker makes effective use of nocturnal shots, as the city's glorious architecture is highly atmospheric when illuminated. He also ventures into libraries, lecture halls, and professorial studies in order to emphasise the fact that, for all its lingering Bridesheadian ambience, Oxford is a seat of learning.


Closer in tone to Richard Attenborough's Shadowlands (1993) and Dome Karukoski's Tolkien (2019) than Robert Boris's Oxford Blues (1984) or Lone Scherfig's The Riot Club (2014), this is by turns earnest and eccentric, quaint and questionable. But, essentially, it's a sincere attempt to do justice to Weber's affecting rite of passage.


A YEAR IN A FIELD.


Only a film critic could start a review of a wonderful film with a gripe. Following Mark Jenkin's Enys Men, A Year in a Field is the second release by the Cornish production company, Bosena. During its making, Christopher Morris was the Director of the School of Film & Television at Falmouth University and his captivating observational documentary follows on from the shorts, A Different Place (2018) and Kestav (2022), as well as the featurette, Fog of Sex: Stories From the Frontline of Student Sex Work (2015).


But there's much more to Morris than his IMDB biog would have you believe. He casually states that he has been making documentary work for nearly 40 years and mentions leaving the BBC in 2003 in order to take up the post of Professor of Documentary Practice at Newport Film School. In fact, he has to his credit a BAFTA in the Best Children's Programme - Factual for As Seen on TV (1994) and BAFTA Cymru awards for Best Education Programme and Best Director - Factual for Lord of the Flies (1999). He also won the Films Against Violence/ Intolerance prize at the Berlin Film Festival for Three Minutes of Torture (2001).


Given that A Year in a Field centres on a 4000 year-old stone standing proudly in a Cornish plot, it seems odd that its maker should want to hide his light under a bushel. Morris has spent six years photographing the stone prior to making this film of deceptive simplicity, great patience, artistic ingenuity, social responsibility, and quiet beauty. Let's hope he's now got the time to update his IMDB profile and fly the flag anew for children's programming.


Opening with a close-up of a dead mouse and a long shot of a sunrise, the scene shifts to the Merry Maidens, a neolithic stone circle near the Cornish village of St Buryan. It's said that the 19 granite megaliths are actually maidens who were punished for the sin of dancing on a Sunday, although their placement comfortably predates the Christian era. Nearby is Boscawen-Rôs East, the place of the elder tree on the heath, which Morris first starts filming on the day of the Winter Solstice. This just happens to be the first day in 800 years in which Saturn and Jupiter are so perfectly aligned that they appear as a single star in the night sky. When it last occurred, in 1236, Genghis Khan was on the warpath and St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology, passed on. But the 8ft Boscawen-Rôs had already been in place for 3000 years.


After studies of frosty flora and warmed sunshiney vistas, we learn that Longstone Field takes its name from the Cornish word `menhir'. Morris also reveals that the stone was carved so long ago that any significance it might have held has long been lost to us. But he avers that it was deliberately placed on the edge of a known world in sight of the Atlantic disappearing into the distance beyond Land's End. Following a discussion of the geological origins of granite, Morris points out that the lichen that live on the stone are a unique combination of algae and fungi. He notes that lichen exist across the planet and are among its oldest living residents, with those on Boscawen-Rôs having been there since its erection, slowly eroding it, atom by atom.


It's winter, but slugs keep slithering and insects scurry over the stone and the surrounding island of ground that is left untouched by ploughs. Entering this distinctive eco system at night is a snuffling badger, whose eyes glow as it turns to look into the lens before scuttling away. A gentle rain falls, as Morris informs us that snow is rare in the vicinity because it's surrounded on three sides by sea.


After listing some of the ecological disasters that befell the world in February 2021, Morris links a microchip shortage to the silicon that makes up about 40% of the longstone. He mentions the Doomsday Clock devised by Albert Einstein to gauge the future of human existence. It hands were set at seven minutes to midnight in 1947 and moved back to 14 minutes at the end of the Cold War. But, in 2020, the hands were adjusted to one minute and 40 seconds to midnight, the closest to calamity they have ever been.


Dramatic driving cello music accompanies shots of Boscawen-Rôs, as a boat emerges from behind it on the horizon. A nocturnal hawk launches into take-off, as we reach the Equinox and the sun rises from behind the stone in a red morning sky. Aware that animal life needs plants, Morris declares soil to be our life-support system, as a quarter of the species on Earth live in it. In addition, it also draws down and stores carbon from the atmosphere, with 10 billion tons being locked into the UK's soil. Over shots of aviation trails over the stone, Morris reminds everyone in the country that they annually send 10 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere and he wonders what this might look like.


As we see some Ann Summers lingerie that has somehow made its way from a container ship from China, Morris explains that Longstone Field is used to cultivate barley, which is one of the oldest human crops. The stone will have watched tin traders sailing past, along with Viking invaders and Sir Francis Drake on the deck of The Golden Hind. Sailors with the Spanish Armada would have seen it, as would pilgrims aboard The Mayflower. As a container ship glides past, Morris laments that many clothing items are discarded after a year and leaves consciences to be pricked, as he moves on.


Shifting cloudscapes hover over blooming flowers and grazing cows, as piano tinkles on the soundtrack. A slug slithers through grass heavy with raindrops, as we see a painterly long shot of a sundog caused by light refracting off ice crystals in the clouds. Morris recalls that the seas were formed from ice that had collected on the meteorites that had crashed into Earth as it formed four billion years ago. Humans are made from the same water molecules and it dismays Morris that we waste and pollute this precious resource with such little thought. It also baffles him that the oil used by cargo ships is illegal on land.


Singing the praises of the self-sufficient polypody ferns that grow in the field, Morris notes its carbon connection to coal and oil, as he bemoans the fact that humans are using natural processes to destroy the planet by transporting synthetic clothing from factories in Asia.


A folk song plays over shots of green shoots, as Morris notices a picture of a pouting model on the lingerie's cardboard packaging. Over days and nights, he films as snails and slugs traverse the image and a small animals skip past it under cover of darkness. It vanishes from view as the crop rises, but it will take a while for the intruder to biodegrade.


The day after the new Prince of Wales aircraft carrier sails past to protect leaders at the G7 summit, Morris ponders the carbon footprint of the Spanish Armada. He suggests warfare should be forcibly made to be carbon neutral to prevent countries from killing humans in two ways. He considers the fact that the sunlight hitting Boscawen-Rôs has taken eight minutes and 20 seconds to arrive from the Sun. Miraculously, it helps plants grow, so that they can produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide. Their greenery is little more than rejected red and blue light from the spectrum and Morris struggles to reconcile this beauty with Britain's reckless attitude to biodiversity. He claims his film is a one-man piece of direct action stillness to try and make people aware of the perilous state of the planet and the need to change if we are to avert the destruction of a place of untold and endless wonderment.


The Summer Solstice approaches and a bee searches for pollen in a purple flower, while all manner of furry and hard-shelled insects mill around in the grass below. Morris admits that he doesn't know the name of the insect padding around on a leaf, but suspects it will only know a single warm season if it can steer clear of swallows and spiders. He wishes he had a better grasp of eco systems and their inter-connectivity. But he has a marvellous eye, with his close-up of an upwardly mobile yellow slug being as majestic as the view from behind the longstone of a cloud-shrouded Sun.


The buzz of insects, the chirruping of birds, the rustle of the breeze in the crops, and the heavy plop of raindrops accompany more bucolic images. As the longstone stands impassively, Morris lists natural disasters, as July 2021 becomes the hottest on record (a feat surpassed two years later). He muses about the distance Earth and the field have travelled since he started filming and contemplates the role of the iron core seemingly bequeathed by the collision with Theia some 4.5 billion years ago. Shots of the Moon accompany this mini lesson in astrophysics, as Morris declares that it was a mile closer to Earth when Boscawen-Rôs was erected. There's a tinge of regret in his voice as he compares the civilisation that organised its year by the cycles of the Moon and our own epoch with its obsession with facts and statistics rather than spiritual curiosity.


The barley is baled and a mouse lies dead amidst the straw. As he films fireworks over Land's End, the Taliban retakes Kabul and Russia invades Ukraine while Morris is editing the sequence. He declares this Europe's first Climate War, as female voices and a single violin shriek on the soundtrack. Close-ups follow of a Mini Cheddars packet and a Christian pamphlet. On 20 September, he films the Harvest Moon and the shadow it casts of himself on the stone. He is dismayed by a survey claiming that a sizeable proportion of 16-20 year-olds believe humanity is doomed.


With the Equinox, the film enters its final quarter. Michael Nymanesque strings throb, as Morris explains that scattered barley seed has started to grow amidst the stubble. The original crop was destined to feed animals and this sparks a diatribe about shortages, the transportation of wood, and salad bags being tiny burps of global warming. He curses the amount of waste in Britain and the expectational impetus of consumerism. The colour of the skies is sensational, shifting from crimsons to gold, as berries ripen and clouds scud. Morris describes the movements of birds, mammals, and insects, as the soundtrack shifts into Jean-Michel Jarre mode and Cop 26 begins in Glasgow.


Allowing emotion to creep into his voice for the first, Morris rather gauchely proclaims that equinox, solstice, and season have been replaced by want, take, and more. Echoing Greta Thunberg's cry of `blah, blah, blah', he voices his disgust at the leaders who make token gestures while protecting their paymasters and passing blame down the line. With the 12-day conference generating as much greenhouse gas as his part of Cornwall does in a year, he has every right to be furious. But his rhetoric lacks finesse.


As Land's End is declared a Dark Skies Park, Morris films Saturn, Jupiter, and Venus in perfect alignment on 8 December. This will next happen in 2080 and he wonders what the field will look like then and what humankind will think of the generation that failed to act when it knew the clock was ticking dangerously. Boscawen-Rôs came to be during the Bronze Age when ambition and innovation detached humanity from the natural world. So, rather than being a totem designed to link earth and sky, Morris wonders whether the stone is a giant finger to Nature on behalf of a civilisation that thought it knew better.


A rainbow forms over the field, as Morris ends his vigil on the shortest day. Clouds streak across the sky and voices wail on the soundtrack. Another year is over, but the new one has to begin with hope or else why would we bother?


Despite having nothing new to say about anything and scrupulously avoiding any mention of Coronavirus, this ultimate rockumentry still makes for a cogent summation of the current state of play and should leave most viewers with plenty to contemplate. Undertaking writing, photographic, editing, and narrating duties with unassuming proficiency, Morris comes across as a man who cares and feels entitled to answers from those who no longer believe they need to listen. Whether skygazing or surveying the undergrowth, he exudes a passion that can occasionally feel preachy. But his sincerity is never in doubt and neither is his artistry.


Ably abetted by Claire Stevens's sensitive sound work and Sarah Moody's protean music, Morris cannily keeps humans away from his `sentinel to passing of time' and uses its field to explore the wider world and beyond. Sometimes, the mix of oratory and imagery comes across like one of those son et lumière presentations that are shown in small cinemas at visitor centres. At others, however, it feels like a rustic variation on one of Patrick Keillor's erudite urban ruminations. One can only hope that this labour of love gets seen and its message is taken to heart. Otherwise...



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