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‘The Book Of Clarence’ review: A biblical epic with the power to surprise

In search of a better life, a contemporary of Jesus decides to become a messiah in The Book of Clarence

4.0 rating

By Anna Smith

Lakeith Stanfield in The Book of Clarence (Picture: Press)

British musician Jeymes Samuel, aka The Bullitts, announced himself as a bold filmmaking talent with 2021’s The Harder They Fall, a revisionist Western featuring Idris Elba, Regina King and Lakeith Stanfield. He puts Stanfield centre stage in The Book of Clarence, a ballsy riff on an even more old-fashioned genre: the Biblical epic.

It’s a riotous ride with obvious comparisons to the likes of The Life of Brian, but its thoughtful take on faith and race also won praise from liberal Christians when it came out in the US earlier this year. Samuel — who is Seal’s younger brother — composed his own score, and weaves in well- chosen songs from artists including Shabba Ranks and producer JAY-Z.

Stanfield brings heart and humour as Clarence, a contemporary of Jesus who scrapes a living out of con tricks and petty crime. He’s a smart guy who makes stupid decisions. Envious of Jesus’s fame, he decides the best way to make a fortune is to pretend to be a messiah. But he can only get so far with his con-artist skills when his enemies include Jedidiah the Terrible (Eric Kofi- Abrefa) and Pontius Pilate ( James McAvoy). With a majority Black cast, this makes a wry statement about the white-washed Biblical epics of past decades, as well as opening up opportunities to explore racial and class tensions (the Roman soldiers are white).

David Oyelowo plays John the Baptist, who has little time for Clarence’s games, while Omar Sy makes for a brilliant Barabbas and Brit Michael Ward is Judas Iscariot. Benedict Cumberbatch has a small but significant role. Alfre Woodard brings her usual gravitas as the Virgin Mary, while Teyana Taylor plays he rather less virginal Mary Magdalene. With other key female roles filled by Anna Diop and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, it’s a fantastic cast, though most of the supporting roles remain just that: this is Clarence’s show. Jesus himself is rarely seen, and it’d be a minor spoiler to say who plays him.

The Book of Clarence stands on its own as a comedy-drama with engaging characters and an emotive narrative, but it’s probably best enjoyed by those vaguely familiar with the Bible, regardless of their beliefs. Samuel has put a lot of thought, detail and knowledge of the New Testament into his screenplay, using familiar characters to play with tropes and to make a point. It might seem
like an unlikely story to come from the pen of a Londoner, but then — like Clarence himself — Samuel definitely has the power to surprise.