‘The Book of Clarence’ Review: LaKeith Stanfield Shines in Hilarious Epic I LFF


Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn is not the only film at LFF that had to contend with the glory of its predecessor. Jeymes Samuel (also known by his stage name The Bullitts) had a marvelous directorial debut with 2021’s The Harder They Fall, a revisionist Western for Netflix that put his highly stylized sensibilities on full display. His second feature, The Book of Clarence, takes a big jump in both stakes and scope, bringing us all the way back to AD 33 in Lower City, Jerusalem. Samuel takes a story that most of the world knows (and some believe) and doesn’t so much as revise it but poses the question “What if this happened instead?” After all, whether this is revisionist or not depends on your beliefs. But aside from the Jesus Christ of it all, The Book of Clarence is a wild ride of pure cinematic fun while also offering a sincere story of belief and man’s search for meaning.

What Is ‘The Book of Clarence’ About?

Image via Sony

Samuel wastes no time in pulling the audience right into the action of Clarence’s (LaKeith Stanfield) life. He and his best friend Elijah (RJ Cyler) are having a high-speed horse race with Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor), resulting in both men getting thrown off their cart. The camera cuts to a POV angle, and you can almost feel the burn as their skin grazes off the stones. You’re buckled in now, and there is no getting off. Clarence is one of the very few who don’t believe in this Messiah everyone is talking about — Jesus Christ himself (Babs Olusanmokun) — and is socially ostracised because of this. His twin brother, Peter, left their ailing mother (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) to become one of the twelve Apostles, and Clarence can’t accept how anyone could put their beliefs before their own family.

Clarence’s main predicament is that he owes a considerable debt to Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa). This is made worse by the fact that Clarence is in love with his sister (Anna Diop). Thinking that if he proves to be a Man of God his debt will be excused, Clarence (while high from shisha) gets the great idea to become the 13th Apostle. In order to do so, Judas (Micheal Ward) challenges him to free all the gladiator slaves. This is where we meet the new member of the gang, Barabbas (Omar Sy), whom Clarence defeats in battle, freeing him. But this still doesn’t allow Clarence into the Apostles so he tries an even worse plan — pretend to be the new Messiah and put the phrase “fake it till’ you make it” to the test.

‘The Book of Clarence’s Plot Is as Sharp as It Is Funny

Image via Vanity Fair

There is way more to the film’s plot but overexplaining would take all the fun away from what an explosive joy it is. It’s clever enough to pull off the concept while still making sure to not rely on it too much. Everything from the costumes, world-building, characterization, and in classic Samuel fashion, music, is outstanding.The Book of Clarence mixes history, fiction, and modernity to bring a hilarious spin on the story of Jesus Christ. Yeah, some Christians will find it offensive. It takes the piss out of the immaculate conception — “It’s a little far-fetched” — and depicts Mary slapping Clarence for asking her if she really is a virgin. While Jesus himself isn’t the main attraction, the way he’s used and how the film parlays its plot into the story that we know today is one of its strongest elements.

RELATED: ‘The Book of Clarence’: Release Date, Cast, Plot, and Everything We Know So Far About The Upcoming Biblical Epic

The Book of Clarence doesn’t just rewrite history (or fiction, again, up to you), but it sprinkles out fun nods and resonant digs at what has happened in the world since this time. The choice to have every Roman guard, including Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy), sport imperial English accents is a great way to remind the audience that the Romans weren’t the only Empire to cause devastation. Clarence, trying to suck up to Pontius, tells him, “My best friend is Roman” (this got huge laughs from the audience). Samuel does it subtly but these little details give the film an updated, current feel while still remaining rooted in its setting. Jerusalem City has different gangs, Clarence is told that he’s not welcome in “Gypsy territory,” and Jesus Christ tells Jezebel that soon enough, everyone will know her name. The script is extremely sharp and paired with Samuel’s highly stylized directing and beautiful score and song choices, The Book of Clarence is a feast for the eyes, ears, and mind. What you take from its philosophy is entirely subjective, but the ending is a beautiful mediation on what it means to have faith, and who is really deserving of the glory that we only reserve for white men.

‘The Book of Clarence’ Has a Brilliant Ensemble Cast

Image via Vanity Fair

The ensemble cast of Clarence makes for a wonderful “Spot the actor” throughout. It’s great to see the likes of Omar Sy and Marianne Jean-Baptiste (who’s one of the most underrated actors ever but that’s a conversation for another day) back on our big screens. James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch are used sparingly but both of them look like they’re having the time of their lives. And David Oyelowo proves again how he can make a lasting impression with just a few minutes of screen time (and that he needs to do more comedies!!)

A particularly fateful scene of Cumberbatch sporting a new (and very recognizable) look is played to perfection, one of the few but joyous camp moments of the film. Tom Vaughan Lawlor chews up the scenery, relishing the hatred and power of a Roman guard. These all work to support the central performance, LaKeith Stanfield in a dual role. He makes Clarence an opportunist swindler full of charm and charisma and a man just looking for a purpose. The film asks a lot of him — action sequences, comedic deliveries, tender romantic moments, and existential awakenings. He captures it all and then some, never letting Clarence get lost in the chaos surrounding him. Stanfield belongs center stage on the big screen, and hopefully he’s done with the Haunted Mansions of the world and will get more roles that allow him to exercise his comedic abilities and star power (but please, not the MCU).

The Book of Clarence is a film very much of its time. No, not AD 33, but 2023. Over 40 years after Monty Python’s The Life of Brian was banned in various countries, Jeymes Samuel’s parody of the basis of Christianity is able to be both irreverent and sincere. It questions how the story of Jesus Christ came to be, even how we drew up this image of him (one of its best jokes). But it also understands that people need faith, and there is a place for religion in the world as long as it’s for everyone and people can keep their minds open. Jeymes Samuel is a master of all trades who can craft character-driven arcs with fun action-packed sequences all against a beautiful score. No actor misses a beat and it confirms LaKeith Stanfield remains not just a brilliant actor but a true movie star.

Rating: B+

The Big Picture

  • The Book of Clarence takes a revisionist approach to the story of Jesus Christ, posing the question of what would happen if things unfolded differently.
  • The film is a wild, fun-filled ride that mixes history, fiction, and modernity to create a hilarious spin on the story while offering a sincere exploration of belief and meaning.
  • With a brilliant ensemble cast, standout performances, and a sharp script, The Book of Clarence is a cinematic feast for the eyes, ears, and mind that challenges viewers to think about faith.

The Book of Clarence had its world premiere at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival.

Las Vegas News Magazine

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