Drowning by Numbers

Drowning by Numbers

Drowning by Numbers film poster
Directed by Peter Greenaway
Produced by Kees Kasander
Denis Wigman
Written by Peter Greenaway
Starring Joan Plowright
Juliet Stevenson
Joely Richardson
Bernard Hill
Jason Edwards
Natalie Morse
Music by Michael Nyman
Cinematography Sacha Vierny
Editing by John Wilson
Distributed by Prestige
Release date(s) 10 September 1988
Running time 118 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

Drowning by Numbers is a 1988 British film directed by Peter Greenaway. It was entered into the 1988 Cannes Film Festival.[1]



The film's plot centers on three women — a grandmother, mother and daughter — each named Cissie Colpitts. As the story progresses each woman successively drowns her husband. The three Cissie Colpitts are played by Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, and Joely Richardson. Bernard Hill plays the coroner Madgett, who is cajoled into covering up the three crimes.

The structure, with similar stories repeated three times, is reminiscent of a fairy tale, more specifically the Billy Goats Gruff, since Madgett is constantly promised greater rewards as he tries his luck with each of the Cissies in turn. The link to folklore is further established by Madgett's son Smut, who recites the rules of various unusual games played by the characters as if they were ancient traditions. Many of these games are invented for the film, including:

  • Bees in the Trees
  • Dawn Card Castles
  • Deadman's Catch
  • Flights of Fancy (or Reverse Strip Jump)
  • The Great Death Game
  • Hangman's Cricket
  • The Hare and Hounds
  • Sheep and Tides

Number-counting, game rules and the plot's repetitions are devices that emphasize structure and symmetry in Drowning by Numbers. Through the course of the film the numbers 1 to 100 appear in order, sometimes seen in the background, sometimes spoken by the characters.

The film is set in and around Southwold, Suffolk, England, with key landmarks such as the Victorian water tower, Southwold Lighthouse and the River Blyth estuary clearly identifiable.



Drowning by Numbers
Soundtrack album by Michael Nyman
Released 1988
Recorded 1988
Genre contemporary classical music, Minimalist music, film score
Length 44:48
Label Virgin, Caroline
Director Michael Nyman
Producer David Cunningham & Michael Nyman
Professional reviews

The reviews parameter has been deprecated. Please move reviews into the “Reception” section of the article. See Moving reviews into article space.

Allmusic 4/5 stars [2]
Michael Nyman chronology
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
Drowning by Numbers
La Traversée de Paris

The musical score is by Michael Nyman, and is, at Greenaway's specific request, entirely based on themes taken from the slow movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E flat, K364, bars 58-61 of which are heard in their original form immediately after each drowning. Nyman was alerted to the potential of this piece by Greenaway in the late 1970s and had previously used it as material for part of the score for Greenaway's The Falls and for "The Masterwork" Award Winning Fish-Knife and Tristram Shandy.[2] "Trysting Fields" is the most complicated use of the material: every apoggiatura from the movement, and no other material from the piece, is used.[citation needed]

The album is the tenth by Nyman, and the seventh to feature the Michael Nyman Band.

Track listing

  1. Trysting Fields
  2. Sheep and Tides
  3. Great Death Game
  4. Drowning by Number 3
  5. Wheelbarrow Walk
  6. Dead Man's Catch
  7. Drowning by Number 2
  8. Bees in Trees
  9. Fish Beach
  10. Wedding Tango
  11. Crematorium Conspiracy
  12. Knowing the Ropes
  13. Endgame

The back cover of the album booklet has a large number 58. Fred Ritzel has pointed out that the Skipping Girl (Natalie Morse) reaches number 58 in her counting game.[3] These are subtle ways of drawing attention to the key bar of the Mozart piece.


  1. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Drowning by Numbers". festival-cannes.com. http://www.festival-cannes.com/en/archives/ficheFilm/id/324/year/1988.html. Retrieved 2009-07-26. 
  2. ^ Michael Nyman, sleevenotes to Drowning by Numbers CD, Virgin Records CDVE23, 1988
  3. ^ Fred Ritzel. "Planspiele, Zum Verhältnis von Bild und Musik bei Peter Greenaway und Michael Nyman." 1993. [1] (in German)

External links

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