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Film Title

Drowning by Numbers


Peter Greenaway


  • Bernard Hill as Madgett
  • Joan Plowright as Cissie Colpitts I
  • Juliet Stevenson as Cissie Colpitts II
  • Joely Richardson as Cissie Colpitts III
  • Jason Edwards as Smut

Written and directed by Peter Greenaway, Drowning by Numbers is a baroque examination of sorority, murder and all things numerical laced with dark humour and morbid events. It won’t be for everyone’s taste, but as a black comedy drama with strange imagery and surreal repeating games, it is a sardonic and at times disturbing watch.

drowning by numbersIn a quiet and seemingly quaint Suffolk town by the seaside, strange events are occurring beneath the supposedly docile appearance. The film focuses on three generations of women who all share the name Cissie Colpitts. As the film progresses, each of the women successfully drown their philandering and useless spouses; the eldest Cissie drowns her husband in the bath, the second Cissie disposes of her spouse in the sea and the seductive youngest drowns her husband in the swimming pool. Their murderous tasks are covered up by the local coroner Madgett, who loves to play morbid games. Although he is promised a reward for his rulings on the suspicious deaths, the three women hold back and lead him on. Madgett’s teenage son Smut, is also obsessed with death and numerical games and his imagination is heightened after the sudden increase in drownings. Yet, soon the townsfolk grow suspicious of the supposed accidental deaths and believe that Madgett knows more than he is letting on. Strange, unsettling and embedded with a knife-edge humour, Drowning by Numbers emerges as an artistic rumination on morbidity, womanhood and sexuality.

As I mentioned earlier, Drowning by Numbers will not be for everyone but there are certain things that can’t help but be praised. The strikingly saturated hues of blue and red that cover Suffolk are exemplary and capture the various themes of aquatic death and underlying passion. A lot of the imagery is really hard to get out of your head. Greenaway clearly has fun placing numbers in the scenes in various ways, such as written, on clothing or sometimes something subliminal and repeating numerous phrases relating to them.  References to historical figure’s last words, morbid games played like ancient rites and a young girl reciting the names of stars in the night sky while skipping all add to the dark tone of the film and the skittish other side that often intertwine with one another to unnerving effect.

As the film continues, the audience is sucked into the twisted game and believe me it’s a strange but interesting experience that makes you sit up and take note. Greenaway depicts an iconoclastic England rarely depicted on cinema screens, cutting through the alleged respectability and manners with a mendacious glee to show a dark undercurrent akin to a really dark fairy tale at various points. Lurid images and the importance of sisterhood play a large part of the story, embodied excellently by the murdering trio at the heart of it. Michael Nyman’s unusual score perfectly compliments the dark humour that pervades Drowning by Numbers.

The cast inhabit their strange roles with charm and wit. Bernard Hill is suitably strange and slightly lecherous as the coroner cajoled into covering up the aquatic deaths but never getting his reward with any of the women. Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson and Joely Richardson make for a delightfully scheming and lethal sisterhood, filling the three Cissie’s with vivacity but also showing the hidden secrecy, unspoken camaraderie and manipulation that lies beneath their pretty exterior. Jason Edwards makes quite an impression as the unusual Smut, who collects bugs and is obsessed with anything related to death. Through his narration, we see the escalating morbid quality that his games begin to take on.

It may not be for everyone, but if you want an intelligent, strangely and darkly comic look at murder boasting unusual imagery, Drowning by Numbers may be what you are looking for.