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Drowning by Numbers

Where to Watch Drowning by Numbers

R
1988

Drowning by Numbers is a surreal, dark, and extraordinarily crafted film which debuted in 1988. The film, directed by Peter Greenaway—an intellectual filmmaker known for his unique storytelling style and visually compelling cinema—creates a world filled with symbolism, allegory, and nuanced performances.

Set in the picturesque landscapes of the English countryside, Drowning by Numbers tells the story woven around three women, all from the same family, yet quite different from each other. Each woman shares a common name, Cissie Colpitts, but belong to different generations. The eldest is a grandmother (played by Joan Plowright), her daughter (Juliet Stevenson), and her granddaughter (Joely Richardson), all sharing not just their name but also a somewhat dubious hobby - the orchestrated drowning of their husbands.

The film is a skillful exploration of relationships and the insidious complexity of women's power within them. It delights in crossing the boundaries between the ordinary into the distinctive. The women, buoyed by a shared desire for liberation from undesirable matrimonial bonds, find a strange comfort in a shared secret. However, it's not a macabre thriller; instead, it’s a film that combines dark humor and absurdity with surreal elegance to express its themes of power, control, and freedom.

Bringing these ethereal themes back down to Earth are the actors. Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, and Joely Richardson give captivating performances of deeply flawed but captivating characters. Plowright presents a gripping interpretation of the matriarch character, while Stevenson combines an intriguing mix of cold calculation and vulnerability. Richardson's youthful charm is effectively used to depict an innocence tensely poised on the brink of a darker awakening.

Playing the character of Madgett is Bernard Hill, a seemingly disconnected, local coroner and friend of the family. Madgett's character adds another layer to the narrative, navigating a complex relationship with the Cissie's, oscillating between manipulating and being manipulated by them.

Drowning by Numbers isn't satisfied solely with compelling performances or narrative originality; it also is a treat for the senses. The fantastic DOP Sacha Vierny creates a visually stunning masterpiece. The background settings of the coastal English countryside are exquisitely filmed, fostering a mood of surrealism and poetic realism. The grim activities of the main characters play out against a backdrop of the lush English landscape which silently observes the proceedings with an indifferent beauty. Greenaway’s representation of his abstract sensibilities into a visually arresting schema is manifested quite effectively throughout the film.

Furthermore, the screenplay itself is a master class in abstract expression. Also penned by Greenaway, the dialogue and narrative beats reflect his taste for the idiosyncratic, the clever push-and-pull between visual representation and the spoken word. The movie is not only about literal drowning, but it also wrestles with drowning in the metaphorical sense - drowning in secrets, in the bizarre games of numbers that recur throughout the film, and in the societal expectations placed upon women.

One of the most noticeable and intriguing aspects of Greenaway's narrative is his usage of numbers. With numbers popping up everywhere, from spoken dialogue to painted on barns, they strike up a haunting harmony with the narrative, along with the darker arithmetic of death.

Speaking to the film's odd charm is its multiple accolades: winning the award for Best Artistic Contribution at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival for Greenaway's direction, signifying the respect and admiration critics and viewers have for this truly unique piece of cinema.

Drowning by Numbers is a movie that challenges its viewers, urging them to lean into the peculiarities and immerse themselves in a deep, mystifying, and imaginatively choreographed narrative. Themes of power, liberty, death, and number games are melded together in a rigorously constructed, metaphor-laden, and visually stunning cinematic experience. Despite being over thirty years old, the film remains in minds as a classic piece from a time in cinema where boundaries were readily pushed and tested.

Drowning by Numbers is a Comedy, Crime movie released in 1988. It has a runtime of 118 minutes. Critics and viewers have rated it moderate reviews, with an IMDb score of 7.2..

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7.2/10
Director
Peter Greenaway
Stars
Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, Joely Richardson, Bernard Hill, Jason Edwards, Natalie Morse
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