Leave it to Peter Greenaway to offer up exactly what Drowning By Numbers is about in the title, and yet provide a film that defies exact summarization. The 1988 film from the Welsh writer/director is elaborate, rife with symbolism, and constructed in such a way to have Wes Anderson drooling at the symmetry and colorful set design; it’s also both endearingly quirky and charming and poignantly tragic. One might describe Drowning By Numbers as a black comedy, or a tragicomedy, or something altogether different; but at its core, it’s a fable-like tale of murder, blackmail, and repetitious patterns that showcases the harm that can befoul the unconnected innocent.
The basic gist here is that there are three familial Cissie Colpitts – grandmother (Joan Plowright), daughter (Juliet Stevenson), niece (Joely Richardson) – living on a beautiful coast of England, and throughout, each of them get the idea to murder their husbands. The reasons are all different, but the method – drowning – remains the same. They seek the help of their coroner friend Madgett (Bernard Hill) to cover up the foul play by marking them natural deaths, but in return he wants relations with each of the three. And mixed somewhere in there is his son Smut (Jason Edwards), whose obsession with numbering and collecting various items is repeatedly denoted by on-screen visuals of the numbering system counting up to 100.
That’s where the ease of describing Drowning By Numbers ends, because the film’s heavy reliance on elements of symbolism and metaphor lends particular meaning that can only be experienced. Greenaway’s film can be watched for its explicit recounting of events, but the film is less focused on plot than a specific style and tone that is hard to impart in a review. The film is quirky to a fault, which will likely be off-putting for certain audiences who aren’t interested in Greenaway’s more florid dialogue and surreal-ish elements. The comedy is often dark and at the same time just outrageous enough, keeping the movie buoyed with lightness until its bleak finale.
The real litmus test for the viewer, though, is how accepting one is of not gleaning the exact meaning of Greenaway’s symbolism. While there’s a lot of it, some of the intention is lost to the viewer, and the overwhelming amount of detail in every scene both encourages subsequent watches and also feels hopelessly impenetrable at times. With that said, Drowning By Numbers doesn’t require the audience to “get” everything; at the heart of the film is a devious narrative with compelling performances and stunning cinematography. For those willing to go along with Greenaway’s quirkiness, Drowning By Numbers is a beautiful movie that drenches the viewer in curiosity.
Severin Films has released Drowning By Numbers with a glorious 4K UHD package, containing a new 4K scan of the original negative in 1.66:1 that was supervised by Greenaway himself. The results are simply outstanding; the HDR 10/Dolby Vision adds a vibrance to the color grading in the film that highlights all of the immaculate details throughout, since most of Greenaway’s shots are absolutely cluttered with colorful items and objects. Reds and verdant greens are an obvious standout here, but there’s definitely a lot to be said about the deep blacks that often seem to envelope characters and backgrounds in the movie (see the pool scene after Cissie #3 drowns her husband). The 4K scan allows for strong background details, of particular importance to the film since most of the numbers are relegated to backgrounds of the shot construction. Grain scale is moderate with the occasional chunkiness cropping up here and there in particular low-lit sequences. However, this UHD is an excellent treatment of Greenaway’s film.
Audio is a DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track that sounds quite robust thanks to Michael Nyman’s grandiose score. Dialogue is consistent in volume. English subtitles are also included in yellow.
For extras, Severin Films has gotten Greenaway for an audio commentary included on both the UHD and Blu-ray discs. This is recommended listening, since Greenaway generally provides additional context to all of the imagery and symbolism throughout the film as well as contextual meaning to personal inclusions and Easter eggs that a casual viewer would not know about. It’s a great accompaniment to the film, especially if you’ve just watched it and want to go back to learn a lot more about what you’ve missed. A trailer is also included on the UHD as well as the Blu-ray.
The rest of the extras are on the included Blu-ray. A new interview with Peter Greenaway offers a more truncated version of the commentary where Greenaway espouses on the themes of the film – water specifically – and more particularly his view that painting is the most elite form of art. Actor Bernard Hill provides a 10 minute interview talking about some stylistic choices of his character and enumerating on Greenaway as a director and his inclusion of numbers to ensure no sequences could be edited. An archival featurette called “Fear of Drowning” is also included, running about 30 minutes and providing something of a visual essay complete with storyboard artwork. Finally, a series of screens describing the made-up games in the film, along with illustrations, is included.
Disc 1: UHD
- NEW Audio Commentary With Writer/Director Peter Greenaway
- Trailer (2160p, 2:19)
Disc 2: BLU-RAY
- NEW Audio Commentary With Writer/Director Peter Greenaway
- NEW Painting By Numbers – Interview With Peter Greenaway (1080p, 14:28)
- NEW Three Women And A Coroner – Interview With Actor Bernard Hill (1080p, 9:53)
- Fear Of Drowning (Archival Featurette) (1080p, 27:15)
- NEW Some Greenaway Game Concepts (1080p, 5:29)
- Trailer (1080p, 2:19)
Drowning By Numbers is a compelling, but often confounding, watch, and it will certainly only appeal to a specific viewer set. However, its rewarding visually-assisted narrative is on excellent display here with Severin’s UHD release, and a number of extras provide additional context to this piece of art.