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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
Music by Michael Nyman
Cinematography Sacha Vierny
Edited by John Wilson
Distributed by Prestige
Release dates
10 September 1988
Running time
118 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Box office $424,773[1]

Drowning by Numbers is a 1988 British-Dutch film directed by Peter Greenaway. It won the award for Best Artistic Contribution at the Cannes Film Festival of 1988.[2]


  • Plot 1
  • Cast 2
  • Music 3
    • Track listing 3.1
  • In popular culture 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


The film's plot centres on three married women — a grandmother, her daughter, and her niece — each named Cissie Colpitts. As the story progresses, each woman successively drowns her husband. The three Cissie Colpittses are played by Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson and Joely Richardson, while 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, most specifically 'The Billy Goats Gruff', because 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:

In Drowning by Numbers, number-counting, the rules of games and the repetitions of the plot are all devices which emphasize structure and symmetry. Through the course of the film each of the numbers 1 to 100 appears in sequence, often 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 estuary of the River Blyth 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
Michael Nyman chronology
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
Drowning by Numbers
La Traversée de Paris
Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
Allmusic [3]

On Greenaway's specific instructions, the film's musical score by Michael Nyman is entirely based on themes from the slow movement of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E flat, bars 58 to 61 of which are heard in their original form immediately after each drowning. Greenaway alerted Nyman to the potential of this piece in the late 1970s and had previously used it as material for part of the score of his The Falls and for "The Masterwork" Award Winning Fish-Knife and Tristram Shandy.[4] "Trysting Fields" is the most complicated use of the material: every appoggiatura from the movement, and no other material from the piece, is used.

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 (played by Natalie Morse) reaches number 58 in her counting game.[5] These are subtle ways of drawing attention to the key bars of the Mozart piece.

In popular culture

  • Olivier Gillet, designer of the Mutable Instruments range of electronic musical instruments and synthesiser modules, named alternative firmware for his Tides synthesiser module Sheep, in reference to the game featured in the film. Subsequently, alternative firmware called Bees-in-the-Trees, for the Mutable Instrument Braids synthesiser module, has been published.
  • Ambient electronic musician Yuri Tománek, based in Adelaide, Australia, releases recordings under the name Drowning by Numbers.
  • The How I Met Your Mother episode "Bad News" uses a numbering device inspired by the film, with the numbers counting down to the titular "Bad News," when character Marshall gets a call discovering his father has died.


  1. ^
  2. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Drowning by Numbers". Retrieved 2009-07-26. 
  3. ^ Cook, Stephen. Drowning by Numbers at AllMusic
  4. ^ Michael Nyman, sleevenotes to Drowning by Numbers CD, Virgin Records CDVE23, 1988
  5. ^ Fred Ritzel, "Planspiele, zum Verhältnis von Bild und Musik bei Peter Greenaway und Michael Nyman", 1993 (in German)

External links

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