Jeymes Samuel’s sophomore feature is as bold as it is flawed. Here’s our full review of The Book Of Clarence.
Two years ago, Jeymes Samuel’s directorial debut, The Harder They Fall, had its world premiere in the director’s hometown of London at the BFI London Film Festival. The revisionist western lit the capital on fire with its fast paced dialogue and a daring style.
Now, the director once again returns to London and LFF for the world premiere of his second film, The Book of Clarence. If you were a fan of The Harder They Fall, The Book of Clarence will likely also tickle your fancy. Once again, Samuel shows admirable ambition, although in this case, the film features some jarring tonal shifts.
In another revisionist story, Samuel aims higher than before. The Book of Clarence challenges us to reconsider history and indeed, the tale of Jesus Christ himself. Samuel skillfully, if superficially, examines religion and prophets through the character of Clarence, but never succumbs to preaching to his audience. You don’t really see religious epics in modern cinema, so that alone somehow feels new and fresh, even if the film seems unwilling to really engage with religion and Christianity specifically.
The story sets up Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) and his buddy Elijah (RJ Cyler), owing a great deal of money to the appropriately named Jedidiah the Terrible. Clarence, a clever lad, quickly realises that Jesus’ apostles enjoy a comfortable lifestyle and could provide him protection from Jedidiah. The problem? Clarence thinks Jesus is but a magician.
Once he is promptly rejected as the 13th Apostle for his lack of faith, Clarence decides to become a new Messiah himself. After all, all he needs to do is trick people into believing he can heal the sick and raise the dead. He’s joined by a former slave gladiator Barabbas (Omar Sy) and the time period’s answer to an Uber driver, Dirty Zeke (Caleb McLaughlin). Needless to say, Clarence’s plan quickly gets out of hand.
The smartest move Samuel pulls with his feature is to cast his film well. The talented ensemble are able to hide some of the more obvious flaws in the writing. Samuel keeps the laughs coming and given the film’s bombastic style, it’s easy to forgive the weakly-penned supporting characters, especially as your lead is this charismatic.
Still, how’s this for a sentence: The Book of Clarence is both a deeply religious drama and a hilarious comedy.
Arguably, the film works better when it leans into the comedy, in fact. RJ Cyler is a particular standout from the cast, with impeccable comedic timing and line delivery. There are no weak performances here, although there is a frustration at how thinly-written the female characters are.
LaKeith Stanfield, who is having a great year with leading roles in AppleTV+’s The Changeling and also Disney’s Haunted Mansion continues his streak of juicy roles with Clarence. “I’m not a nobody,” he insists early on in the film, voicing the film’s central theme. It’s not just that Clarence becomes a Messiah because he needs the money, he yearns for status just as much as he wants to escape certain death. Stanfield skillfully balances Clarence’s insecurities as well as his less likeable qualities and makes for a charming lead.
Clarence’s desire to be somebody is what powers most of The Book of Clarence and as far as themes go, it’s a pretty compelling one. However, despite offering some arresting imagery, The Book of Clarence can’t quite balance the large scale, epic storytelling with the more intimate, emotional beats of Clarence’s personal journey.
The Book of Clarence, with all its flaws, is still another fascinating entry into Samuel’s filmography. His storytelling is less arduous here than in The Harder They Fall and although the film doesn’t always soar, when it does… it soars high.
The Book of Clarence might not be quite as audacious and shocking as Samuel may believe – although its depiction of Jesus will certainly rattle some – but it is a mighty piece of cinema.
The Book of Clarence had its World Premiere at BFI London Film Festival and will be in UK cinemas 19 January, 2024.
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