Joan Plowright and Bernard Hill in Drowning by Numbers

Film Advent Calendar: Abstract surrealism deliberately deconstructs the story in Drowning By Numbers

  • Film plays more like a puzzle book than a novel
  • The plot is enhanced by eccentric detail added into shot composition
  • December 23rd on NQ editor Matt Hartless's advent calendar of films you should watch this Christmas

Most films tell a story in a fairly linear way. Even my previous two reviews, Memento and 2001: A Space Odyssey have a clear narrative structure, even if they are told in an unusual way.

Drowning by Numbers is more like a puzzle book than a story, the actual plot is fairly simple and easily outlined but it is the window into the story that makes this film unique.

Scene from Drowning by Numbers
The three women with the same name. Credit: Prestige

Drowning by Numbers is a 1988 surreal dark comedy film directed by Peter Greenaway and starring Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, Joely Richardson and Bernard Hill.

The film centres around three women (Plowright, Stevenson and Richardson), a grandmother, a mother and a daughter who all have the same name, Cissie Colpitts as, bored of their relationships, decide to drown their husbands. Madgett (Hill), a coroner is cajoled into helping each of them cover up the murders.

The story is loosely based around the Bill Goats Gruff and has a dark fairytale aesthetic throughout.

The defining feature of the film, however, is the repetition of a number of elements that create a spotter’s guide type of game.

The numbers one to 100 appear in order in various places during the film. Some are easier to spot than others, I’ve never seen every one. The women enjoy playing number games from time to time as well. 

Scene from Drowning by Numbers
“100 is all you need. After that, all other 100s are the same,” the opening scene in Drowning by Numbers. Credit: Prestige

There are also a number of bizarre games with stranger rules recited at various points, some are traditional old English parlour games, some were created for the film.

The film has plenty to say about manipulation and status, breaking down the false idealistic notions of a pastoral English life.

The camera often zooms in and out to reveal extra parts of the shot’s composition, giving the impression that life and the universe carries on uncaring around the events of the film. How much does each action matter? Are they like rules in a game, or numbers in a sequence – meaningless without context.

Peter Greenaway is a little known director outside of the arthouse, but a number of better-known directors have taken direct influence from him, most notably Wes Anderson, whose shot composition in Moonrise Kingdom is at least a tip of the hat to Drowning by Numbers.

The film defies more than a general explanation of its weirdness, so if you want a surreal and bizarrely funny fairytale-like story that engages your attention in multiple ways, make Drowning by Numbers a film you need to watch this Christmas.

This article is part of the Film Advent Calendar series, where NQ editor Matt Hartless shares some of his favourite films in 24 different genres that you should watch if you need something to fill your time over the Christmas break.

Scene from Drowning by Numbers
Bernard Hill and Joan Plowright in Drowning by Numbers. Credit: Prestige
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