wed 22/05/2024

The Book of Clarence review - larky jaunt through biblical epic territory | reviews, news & interviews

The Book of Clarence review - larky jaunt through biblical epic territory

The Book of Clarence review - larky jaunt through biblical epic territory

LaKeith Stanfield is impressively watchable as the Messiah's near-neighbour

James McAvoy, left, as Pontius Pilate and LaKeith Stanfield, right, as ClarenceSony Pictures

The Book of Clarence comes lumbered with the charge of being the new Life of Brian, an irreverent spoof of the life of Christ destined to ruffle good Christians’ feathers. It turns out not to be the “new” anything, though: it’s refreshingly sui generis, as the Romans might have said.

It opens with a dramatic orchestral chord, precisely timed to arrive at the exact same moment as the opening tableau of a mass Crucifixion, hanging in the midst of which is a grimacing Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield). We then flashback to an “early Sunday morning 33AD, Lower Jerusalem”, where Clarence and his dopester chum Elijah (RJ Cyler) are engaged in the 33AD equivalent of a drag race, speeding along in a chariot against local bad girl Mary Magdalene… whoa, yes, that Mary Magdalene. This is biblical epic territory, but not as we know it. 

Stanfield has said in an interview that Clarence isn’t the Messiah, he’s the guy living round the corner from him. Which is an apt metaphor for the film. It inhabits a fictive world rooted in biblical study that acknowledges the presence of black people in Ancient Judea and has opted to show them acting out all the familiar tropes about the son of God, but in a story of their own. 

Clarence also owes a lot to the familiar cheeky young dude figure. He’s a chancer weed-peddler, down on his luck but devoted to lifting his beloved mother out of poverty. HIs Judea is an ancient, sun-baked equivalent of the urban streets of The Wire and Top Boy, a world of kingpins and “soldiers”, policed by a very mean bunch of (white) Romans, who constantly check papyrus IDs in their hunt for a figure drawn as a hieroglyph. When Jesus (a suitably serene Nicholas Pinnock) and his 12 apostles appear – in slo-mo, which lends them an instant cod-portentousness – Clarence sees a cool way to repay a big debt. If he can become another “new Messiah” and learn how Jesus does his “tricks”, he can gain followers, and shekels, of his own. 

Alfre Woodard as Mother MaryThe film is a decades-long project dreamed up by writer-director Jeymes Samuel, who grew up in Kilburn, the younger brother of Seal and a musician in his own right as The Bullitts. He previously made 2012’s The Harder They Fall, produced, like this film, by Jay-Z. He has also composed its incidental music and lots of the songs, performing many of them too. The pop score keeps things buoyant, aided by Samuel’s larky ideas and inventive shots. The camera falls with Clarence out of his chariot, in a jumble of images. It jumps forward in freeze-frames, each one a bit more magnified, as Clarence and co size up the Romans who have come to arrest them. It circles around Clarence and a very mean, big-bearded John the Baptist (David Oyelowo), who goes nose to nose with him when he asks to be baptised to impress the woman he loves. 

Oyelowo clearly savours his West African accent, just one of many different voices in the film, ranging from Caribbean to Clarence’s laidback urban-American (though for his Apostle twin, Thomas, he gets a sober Afro and a more neutral voice). The Romans with speaking parts are, inevitably, British or Irish RP speakers, including vicious centurion Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Tom Glynn-Carney as a sadistic blonde Joffrey Baratheon type.

Having the most fun are a beggar with matted hair and dirt-black face, a joke planted in the opening sequence that turns into an amusing punchline in the final reel; and James McAvoy as Pontius Pilate, sporting kohl eyeliner, a crisp British-colonial manner and a historically accurate habit of making “messiahs” walk on water, then crucifying them when they fail. The women are made of even stronger stuff, notably Alfre Woodard (pictured above) as Mother Mary, who slaps Clarence for impertinence when he can't get his head round the immaculate conception. His love interest, slinky Varinia (Anna Diop), at one point leads a cute line of disco dancers to “Nights Over Egypt”. It’s a parade of heavy hitters from the ranks of black actors, but without the self-seriousness of the Wakandans.

The script is a curio, streetwise in places but with nods to Tarantino, giving characters flowing sentences and vocabulary like “soliloquy” and “copious”. Clarence talks of needing “testicular fortitude” – though I suspect that when Judas Iscariot (a serpentine Micheal Ward) betrays himself as a traitor by announcing he wants to “dip his bread in Mary’s gravy” at the Last Supper (cue for a Da Vinci parody), it’s not just bad table manners he means. 

Omar Sy as Barabbas in The Book of ClarenceThe film has to span an awkward gap about two thirds of the way through, when Clarence’s larky exploits start shading into remorse for his old ways and a nascent sense of responsibility towards his companions. But stately Omar Sy (pictured right) is there to lend gravitas as Barabbas, an enslaved gladiator who becomes Clarence’s staunch support; and Eric Kofi-Abrefa’s Jedediah, the kingpin brother of Varinia, is given an MLK-style speech, accusing the Romans of being weak men who will never subdue poor black people though, frankly, this is a bit rich coming from a wealthy man with a harem who’s terrorising the poor black people in debt to him, including Clarence.

This is Stanfield’s best role since his beleaguered telemarketer in Sorry to Bother You and disgruntled Darius in TV’s Atlanta. He’s become an immensely watchable actor, stretching here to genuine pathos, introspection and suffering, and the film needs his charisma to carry it across the finish line still in focus when it gets tangled up in its own oratory. But it gets there, a confident, entertaining jaunt with smart humour, whose evangelicism goes only as far as preaching the importance of self-belief. Which its creator clearly has by the bucketload.

The Romans constantly check papyrus IDs in their hunt for a figure drawn as a hieroglyph

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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