This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.
The Book of Clarence is a clever film. Speaking to the audience ahead of the film, director Jeymes Samuel stated that his intention was to create a film that those today could relate to. This is an accurate statement. One hopes that viewers who might normally be turned off by ‘religious' films, could look past that and see a film that is very modern in its story.
For those familiar with Christian religious history, this new take on an old tale is highly enjoyable. We start the film off with Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield playing him as an ‘everyman'), twin brother of apostle Thomas (also LaKeith, yet these are distinctive roles) and his friend, the aptly named Elijah (RJ Cyler). In an opening scene inspired by Ben-Hur, there's an epic chariot race. Alas, Clarence and Elijah lose and with that their opportunity to come up with money owed to Jedidiah the Terrible (Babs Olusanmokun). So, it being 33 A.D. in Jerusalem, he decides the best way to pay off his debts is to become a messiah.
It's a fantastic twist, and an incisive commentary on the power of reinvention and religion. In the movie, Jesus Christ does exist, but he remains a background character for the most part. For the first two acts, we are taken on a very funny journey of self-actualisation. Much of the film has a slapstick humour, and the audience was laughing in their seats.
There is a delightful scene with John the Baptist (David Oyelowo) early in the film. Soon thereafter Clarence finds himself in front of Barabbas (Omar Sy of Lupin). He's there after being egged on by Judas Iscariot (Michael Ward) to free the slaves as a way to prove he is a messiah. A small scuffle follows, but soon Barabbas teams up with Elijah and Clarence on their journey.
It's this second act that lags a bit. Yes, there are some funny scenes about the validity of a virgin birth. But it just felt as though a good twenty minutes could have been cut out and still kept the humour of a man charading his way to the top. The third and final act however, more than makes up for it. Here we have great cameos from James McAvoy (a thrilling Pontius Pilate) and Benedict Cumberbatch as a beggar who undergoes an exquisite makeover. The film takes a more serious tone, but it does not suffer for it.
Lest the reader think that there are no women in the film, this is not the case. However the women are not fully fleshed out characters, and this is unfortunate. We get sketches of characters in Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor) and Clarence's love interest Varinia (Anna Diop). But one never really understands who they are and serve merely to move the men's story forward.
The music score is fantastic. There are no other words to describe it and it should win many awards. The cinematography by DP Rob Hardy is also excellent. One should see this film as it is a highly enjoyable and contemporary take on an age-old story.
The Book of Clarence will be released on 19th January 2024 in the UK