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Drowning by Numbers DVD

Peter Greenaway, 1988

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Film Details

Directed by Peter Greenaway

Produced in 1988

Main Language - English

Countries & Regions - British Film

MovieMail's Review

A very black comedy, a stately dance of female regeneration set in a fecund, decaying cornucopia, a satire of game-playing men, a cinematic exploration of the depiction of the English landscape - Drowning by Numbers is all of these and plenty else besides.

At the film's human core are the three generations of Cissie Colpitts - a dignified and imperturbable Joan Plowright, a confident, amused Juliet Stevenson and a youthfully flittery Joely Richardson (the two younger actresses gamely braving the bitter blow of an East Anglian autumn in their summer skirts and swimsuits) - whose variously unsatisfactory husbands are all destined for a watery end at their hands, much to the increasingly weary distraction of Bernard Hill's thoroughly compromised coroner (as if the local police going down the wrong track with photographs of his underpants-wearing son sporting x-marks-the-spot injuries for his forthcoming book of historical cricketing fatalities wasn't enough.) He tries to push his advantage by blackmailing the women into sexual favours but gets no further with the eldest than the youngest. And neither can he swim, a distinct disadvantage for males around these parts.

All the while his polaroid-toting, moth-catching son, Smut, invents games that get progressively darker, as 'dawn card castles' and 'reverse strip jump' progress to 'dead man's catch' with its portentous winding sheet and finally, 'the endgame', in which 'the winner is also the loser and the judge's decision is always final'.

Some of the pleasure in Greenaway's films comes from the tension between seasoned actors attempting to effectively ply their trade while the omniscient arch-puppeteer Greenaway is arranging them in his intricately contrived tableaux in which they carry the same compositional importance as, say, a bicycle wheel. And they certainly have a lot to contend with here. Not content with keeping viewers on their toes by providing a visual enumeration of 1 to 100 from the beginning to the end of the film, the film's look references children's illustrators such as Arthur Rackham and Maurice Sendak, English landscape paintings from (among others) Holman Hunt, Millais and Ford Madox Brown, and Dutch 17th century still lifes, whose symbols of mortality presage the fate awaiting a number of the characters. As with his work in A Zed and Two Noughts, Sacha Vierney performs miracles of cinematography with ingeniously lit dawn, dusk and night-time compositions.

With its ceaselessly inventive structural play set to Michael Nyman's jaunty theme, based on a few bars of the slow movement of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E flat, this is one of Greenaway's most approachable films.

Graeme Hobbs on 16th March 2012
Author of 297 reviews

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Film Description

Peter Greenaway's sharp and witty tale of female camaraderie, Drowning by Numbers overflows with metaphors and mathematical riddles and is a film that will astonish and amuse over countless viewings.

Three generations of women who share the same name - Cissie Colpitts - (Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson and Joely Richardson) - have all discovered the same way of dealing with their marital problems. The senior Cissie has drowned her husband Jake in the bathtub, her daughter sent her spouse Hardy to a watery grave in the ocean, and the youngest Cissie sent her husband Bellamy down in a swimming pool. Needless to say, local coroner Henry Madgett (Bernard Hill) has some questions about this sudden rash of drownings among the Colpitts' husbands, and again all three women respond in the same way: they promise to sleep with Henry in exchange for recording the deaths as accidental. Along the way, Greenaway often stops to contemplate his obsessions with literature, astronomy, and numbers.

DVD Details

Certificate: TBC

Publisher: INNLC

Length: 119 mins

Format: DVD Colour

Region: 0

Released: 26th March 2012

Cat No: DAVID2051

DVD Extras

  • Australian import, plays in all UK DVD players

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