Inside Llewyn Davis and The Shoals of Herring

Inside-Llewyn-DavisWhy go to the cinema? Why make the physical effort to go somewhere else when it’s all available (eventually) at home? Why get hassled with winter weather, parking and queuing? Well, for most of us we go to be entertained. A word of warning here, I loved ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’, but it’s not an easy, gentle type of entertainment. The Coen Bros are renowned for making films they want to make in the way they want to make them. Here, with ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’, they don’t attempt to soften the overall relentless, low-level dreariness of existence. They have chosen the early 1960s US folk scene as the medium for their commentary on the nature of a creative life. If you want to go to the movies to see a film pushing an optimistic, ‘we can all achieve our dreams’ theme, concluding with the obligatory Hollywood happy ending, then this movie is not for you. For me this film is a superb antidote to our contemporary celebrity obsessed culture.

Absolutely beautifully shot – worth seeing on a big screen just for the visuals. Sometimes I get annoyed with productions that are underlit and grey, but here the muted palette worked to enhance the bleakness. Also it contrasted well with harsh lighting of the night scene at the motorway services. The film draws you along Llewyn Davis’s (Oscar Isaac) life, not into his life, but closely observing his dwindling energy from the sidelines. There have been many films about creative people (fictional or biopics), individuals struggling for recognition, enduring setbacks, but ultimately ending with them standing in the spotlight of success. Parts of this film are funny, just how funny depends on your own appreciation of black humour, but overall it’s a film more about the nature of reality than the glories of fame.

Several professional reviewers have commented that it is not an accurate portrayal of the 1960s New York folk scene, but it isn’t a docudrama. Perhaps the Coen Bros chose that period as folk was having a resurgence in general and because folk songs are traditionally the songs of ordinary people. I am too young to remember the 1960s ‘folk scene’ at all. Folk has really passed me by, but this harsh yet melancholic film has been a revelatory introduction for me. Once again the globe contracted that little bit more as I heard mention of the Norfolk seaside town of Great Yarmouth when Llewyn Davis sang:

O, it was a fine and a pleasant day
Out of Yarmouth harbour I was faring
As a cabin boy on a sailing lugger
For to go and hunt the shoals of herring

This is the opening verse to Ewan MacColl’s folk song about the collapse of the herring fishing industry off the east coast of England (where I live). A song of everyday folk losing their livelihoods, not to mention the near annihilation of the herring.

herring boats
Herring boats at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, UK
At one point in the early 20th century there were over 1000 boats out of Yarmouth.
Photo: Time & Tide Museum, Norfolk

I appreciate a film if it makes me stop and think and look again at my assumptions, particularly if the film is subtle and engaging. We all know that a movie is a fiction, and if you were to record even a couple of hours of real everyday life you might get a few minutes of compelling material, hopefully more interesting than watching paint dry. I think on one level this film has captured the futility present in most peoples’ lives. Through Llewyn Davis the Coen brothers have shown us a personification of the bitter pill. Not every film has to be plot driven, fast paced and packed with special effects – they have their place, but so does a film attempting to reflect how it is – grey.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

16 thoughts on “Inside Llewyn Davis and The Shoals of Herring”

  1. What a brilliant commentary. I so agree with you about this film.
    (Also had a click of East Anglian recognition – I used to live in Norfolk)

    1. Thank you. I have felt a bit out on a limb with this one as most of the guys thought the film went nowhere and was a bit boring. I’m looking forward to watching it again.

      Norfolk – nice and flat isn’t it. Actually, I do love the big skies.

    1. Thanks for commenting – opposing views are essential, they are the fuel for debate. I’ve read your post and now quite a few more across the blogging world and at first glance it would appear that there is a bit of a male/female divide on the reception of this film. Sweeping statement coming, but more of the female reviewers appear accepting of this stark version of defeat.

      1. Ha ha! My girlfriend hated it! But she isn’t a Coen brothers fan and I had to force her to come along with me in the first place. I did like the music too, I should add.

      2. Well – I’m not surprised, if you don’t like their work then this film would almost be torture to watch! I agree with you about the music and it was a relief that it was actors that can sing and singers than can act.

  2. I was on the fence about seeing this movie but you’ve pushed me off it with your intriguing review – what a delight to read. I will add it to my must see list – perhaps in honour of that great folk singer Pete Seeger who just left us.

  3. A real film, about real life, which oft ends in a kind of failure.
    Had an argument with a brother about whether or not life was best planned or allowed to just happen.
    His planned won, but from then on, to find a truly mutual love, is everything in life.
    Good luck, Llewelyn.

    1. Wow, I didn’t think anybody planned a life even in the more ‘secure’ past let alone these days. I think believing you have a life plan is more about one’s personal temperament than reality. I wrote that review (thanks for commenting), over seven years ago, and the world to me feels at utterly, utterly different place now. Obviously, there’s the surprise (or not) of the global pandemic and now we have confirmation of serious global warming to the extent it could destabilise human society. One’s immediate and personal relationships have never been more significant and valuable. Good luck, Llewelyn indeed.

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