Color, 1988, 118 mins. 42 secs.
Directed by Peter Greenaway
Starring Joan Plowright, Joely Richardson, Juliet Stevenson, Bernard Hill, David Morrissey
Severin Films (UHD & Blu-ray) (US R0 4K/HD), MediumRare (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), King Records (Blu-ray & DVD) (Japan R0 HD/NTSC), Alliance (Finland, Sweden R2 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Film Four (Australia R0 PAL) / Partial WS (1.66:1), Culture (Japan R2 NTSC), Kaleidoscope (Russia R5 PAL)

Following his pair of ornate urban Drowning by Numberstragedies, Drowning by NumbersA Zed and Two Noughts and The Belly of an Architect, director Peter Greenaway returned to the sardonic countryside dark comedy of The Draughtsman's Contract for another tongue-in-cheek murder yarn, Drowning by Numbers. Easily his most playful film in every sense of the term, this tricky and often charming film boasts some of his wittiest dialogue and makes for an ideal introduction for newcomers compared to his more challenging works.

In the middle of the night, aging Cissie Colpitts (Plowright) watches her drunken, adulterous husband frolicking in a tin bath with a naked woman. Cissie calmly decides to drown him and turns to the local coroner, Madgett (The Lord of the Rings' Hill), convincing him to pass off the death as a heart attack. The lovelorn and game-obsessed Madgett reluctantly agrees, but trouble begins when the neighbors begin to suspect something is amiss. To make matters worse, Cissie's daughter (Stevenson) and niece (Richardson), both named Cissie as well, decide to drown their husbands with Madgett's aid, promising sexual favors but delivering little. Meanwhile Madgett's peculiar son, Smut, develops an unhealthy fixation with the constellation-counting girl next door, leading to a climax filled with ironic tragedies.

One of the most sumptuous-looking films ever made, Drowning by Numbers revels in sun-dappled fields, moon-washed forests, and rippling bodies of water. All of the performers rattle off their tricky patter perfectly, and Greenaway loads the films with an encyclopedic collection of games, both literal Drowning by Numbersand psychological. The film also features his most audacious and entertaining visual gimmick, outdoing the sequential drawings of Draughtsman or the color-coded rooms of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Here Drowning by Numbersthe numbers 1 to 100 are contained within the film, in order, hidden somewhere in the frame from the first scene to the last; thus, viewers can either focus on the plot or simply have fun playing numeric hide and seek. This William Castle-style device is also thematically appropriate, drawing the viewer into playing along with the characters and firmly announcing when the game is finally over. The trademark Greenaway nudity is still in abundance, but the sexual and violent content is extremely mild (even borderline mainstream) compared to his subsequent work. Sonically this may be his richest film as well thanks to Michael Nyman's astonishing score, partially derived from Mozart and filled with moments of musical brilliance. A wonderful treasure of a film well worth exploring.

Most video editions of Drowning by Numbers have been quite a mess over the years. The attractive but full frame and optically censored Japanese laserdisc and initial DVD (from CUlture) offered a heavily compromised version of the film, while the uncensored US laserdisc and VHS from Live were horrendously cropped on all four sides and suffered from a bright pink tinge over the entire film. The Australian DVD was a bit of a step up though still imperfect. Image quality is on the soft side but colorful, with the first truly accurate flesh tones of any home video version. The film was shot partially open matte Drowning by Numbers(most exteriors) and hard matted at 1.66:1 (interiors), so the DVD presents more image than prior options. The film contains a Dolby Stereo tag on the end credits, and while Drowning by Numbersthe U.S laser had muddy sound with often indecipherable dialogue, it was essentially mono; the two DVD editions that followed were the same, while the Australian one offers a slightly more active mix. Above all, the Australian DVD is probably the only time you'll ever see a chapter stop entitled, "Do All Fat Men Have Little Penises?" The DVD also promises a theatrical trailer, which would be fine except it's really promotional trailers for Raining Stones and Bhaji on the Beach. The full frame Russian DVD offers a comparable video and audio presentation. As far as DVDs go, the Japanese reissue from King was the one to beat. Trumpeting a newly remastered anamorphic transfer, it's a huge step up in clarity (you can finally make out the nocturnal details during the opening credits), with the most available image information on all four sides during interior scenes. Colors are slightly more muted and naturalistic, but this looks closer to the theatrical prints. Best of all, the stereo mix was finally present in all its glory. This was also the first release to feature the actual theatrical trailer; it's the one prepared for the initial UK showings, and like most of Greenaway's trailers, it's misleadingly slow and subdued.

In 2015, King revisited the film for a Japanese Peter Greenaway Blu-ray set packaged with Prospero's Books and The Baby of Mâcon. The HD transfer unveiled here is gorgeous, bringing out a fantastic sense of depth and detail in the film's many dense, layered compositions. You can also make out some crucial actors' expressions in wide shots that couldn't even be seen in the theater. The beautifully rustic color schemes also get a nice boost with a stronger presentation of those sparing but very effective splashes of pink and red lighting at key moments. The DTS-HD MA stereo track sounds marvelous as well with that Drowning by Numbersbeautiful Drowning by NumbersNyman music coming off especially well. It's bare bones though and would later be eclipsed, but more on that in a moment.

Soon after that same year, a U.K. Blu-ray was released from MediumRare obviously taken from the same HD master originally prepared by Universal. Framing, detail levels, and compression settings are comparable, but something went very wrong with the color space settings as the blacks have all been turned into a pale, milky gray that obliterates the film's usual rich contrast. The audio is LPCM stereo, and welcome optional English subtitles are provided. The UK disc easily wins in the extras department courtesy of the inclusion of the original "Fear of Drowning" short film (26m8s, created on SD video by Greenaway) offering a breakdown of the film's themes and recurring motifs; the transfer here is as good as it could look. Equally valuable is a new 35m10s interview with Greenaway, who offers another of his takes on the squandered potential of cinema and how he wanted to explore the possibilities of the medium with this film including the role of numerology. Finally the set rounds out with an 11-minute excerpt about the film from the Sight on Sound podcast about Greenaway, offering a succinct analysis of the film's place in the director's canon and a study of the film's enduring, darkly comic appeal.

That brings us to the film's long-belated return to American home video in 2023 with a 4K UHD and Blu-ray edition from Severin Films (including a limited slipcover), and if ever there was a filmmaker made for Drowning by Numbers4K, Greenaway is it. This release finally gets it right with a spectacular a/v presentation, improving across the board with a vivid and painterly color scheme, perfect black levels, and a terrific DTS-HD MA 2.0 English track (with optional English SDH subtitles) that decodes very impressively in surround as well. The UHD is a particular beauty, bringing out Drowning by Numbersdetails in the many nocturnal scenes and making it even more fun to play the counting game along the way. A new commentary by Greenaway finds him in full raconteur mode covering hundreds of topics including the number counting, the role of children in the story, the art references dotted throughout, the various visual tricks he employed, and his thoughts on film and other art forms. (Note that on the Blu-ray you have to manually switch tracks to get to the commentary, as the option from the special features menu doesn't work.) The Blu-ray also features several video extras including "Painting by Numbers" (14m28s), a new Greenaway video interview (recorded during a retrospective of his films in 2022 in L.A.) in which he touches on the autobiographical aspects of the production, his approach to death, and the role drawing plays in his artistic expression. In "Three Men and a Coroner" (9m53s), Hill looks back at his enthusiasm making the film, the origin of his character's name, the artful approach to blocking, his awareness of the various games played on screen, and the issues Greenaway's films faced with English audiences. A series of art concepts (5m29s) touches on the conceptions behind the characters and games, and the "Fear of Drowning" video short and theatrical trailer are also included. Very highly recommended.


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Updated review on April 8, 2023.