The Book of Clarence review: A wannabe messiah seeks disciples in an inventive parallel history to the New Testament

Director Jeymes Samuel re-creates and repositions the tropes and spectacle of Hollywood’s sword-and-sandals epics

The Book of Clarence
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Director: Jeymes Samuel
Cert: 15A
Genre: Comedy
Starring: Keith Stanfield, Omar Sy, RJ Cyler, Anna Diop, David Oyelowo, Micheal Ward, Alfre Woodard, Teyana Taylor, Caleb McLaughlin, Eric Kofi-Abrefa, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch
Running Time: 2 hrs 3 mins

In Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, the reluctant hero of the title is mistaken for the Messiah. Jeymes Samuel’s inventive parallel history to the New Testament flips that narrative.

There is something of Garth Davis’s underrated Mary Magdalene in The Book of Clarence’s historically spot-on depiction of numerous cults carousing and competing around Palestine. Inspired by his twin brother and committed disciple Thomas, Clarence – played by the double-jobbing Keith Stanfield – is a chancer with gambling debts who latches on to the upcoming Christian cult. Posing as Jesus’s 13th apostle, he is quickly denounced as a fraud by a savvy John the Baptist (David Oyelowo). Undeterred, he refashions himself as a miracle-working magician. Then James McAvoy’s pitiless Pontius Pilate intercepts him.

Move over, Ben Hur. A starry ensemble reinterprets such biblical characters as the Virgin Mary (Alfre Woodard), Barrabas (Omar Sy) and Judas (Micheal Ward). Tom Vaughan-Lawlor provides Roman muscle. When Jesus bestows the power to multiply coins upon Benjamin, a filthy street beggar, it turns out that Benedict Cumberbatch is under the muck.

The A-list cast reflects the scale of the project’s ambitions. From the thrilling opening chariot race, which Clarence loses to Teyana Taylor’s Mary Magdalene, The Book of Clarence re-creates and repositions the tropes and spectacle of Hollywood’s classic sword-and-sandals pictures.


The film’s tone can err on the wrong side of wackiness: an opium session that leaves the participants floating is as strange as it is visually impressive.

Recalling the new black surrealism of Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, Samuel makes merry with historical anachronisms and a soundtrack featuring Lil Wayne, Doja Cat and Jay-Z (who’s one of the film’s producers).

There’s no trace of blasphemy underpinning these innovations: the film makes judicious use of Jesus, if that’s not an odd way to put it. The script carefully draws details from the gospels as it journeys towards an ending that is miraculous in every sense.

The Book of Clarence opens in cinemas on Friday, April 19th

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic