Review: Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers Swims Onto Severin 4K UHD Blu-ray

Severin’s release captures Greenaway’s black comedy in all its sumptuous beauty.

Drowning by NumbersFrom its opening moments, of a girl jumping rope while counting and naming the stars in the nighttime sky, Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers is perhaps the most direct illustration of the filmmaker’s key thematic and aesthetic interest in ascribing structure to a chaotic universe. Throughout, the film slowly counts from one to 100 via a combination of character dialogue and visual markers sprinkled in frames like an elaborate game of I Spy. In deadpan voiceovers, a young boy also elaborates the byzantine rules of made-up games whose goals seem altogether too banal to be worth their complexity.

The plot that strings together these playful games involves three women, each named Cissie Colpitts (Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, and Joely Richardson), who drown their husbands and enlist the help of a coroner, Madgett (Bernard Hill), to cover up the crimes. In a relatively light preamble to the darker feminist revenge drama of Greenaway’s subsequent The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, the husbands are all boorish figures who push their wives to violence. Madgett, too, is a man of Dionysian appetites, regularly seated at tables sagging with dishes or toting a punch bowl filled with chocolate pudding. The man openly lusts after each Cissie, something the women exploit to their advantage to string him along as an accomplice.

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The mordant playfulness of the plot is matched by the enthusiastic visual élan of the film’s compositions, which draw heavily from Greenaway’s love of Renaissance and Baroque art. Particularly relevant are the decay-ridden still life paintings of Flemish artists like Frans Snyders, who blended opulent table settings with the images of dead animals in various stages of preparation by taxidermists and butchers. Throughout Drowning by Numbers, lavishly ordered spreads of foods and plates are contrasted with the buzzing of insects over fruits, or the various dead animals chronicled by Madgett’s son (and the film’s narrator), Smut (Jason Edwards). Shots are regularly bathed in a golden light that makes each frame look like oil on canvas, while nighttime exteriors employ stark chiaroscuros worthy of Vermeer.

If Greenaway’s compositional preoccupations ultimately override any satiric bite that the narrative might have had, Drowning by Numbers is nonetheless one of his most accessible works, filled with visual and spoken gags. In its aloof irony and chromatic, symmetrical images are an indirect precursor to the work of Wes Anderson, and above all the film revels in the gap between its formal precision and the chaos that gradually erupts in each moment.

Image/Sound

Severin’s two-disc edition of Drowning by Numbers is sourced from a native-4K scan of the film’s negative, and the transfer is suitably film-like, with a heavy emphasis on tactile texture on everything from clothing fabrics to the skins of fruits and the grooves in heavy, wooden furniture. Nighttime scenes demonstrate a range of black levels with no visible crushing, and color balance in consistently strong no matter how extreme the range of hues in any given shot. The audio track is uncluttered and clear, ably balancing dialogue in the center channels while filling out the rest of the mix with Michael Nyman’s tonally variant score, which reworks a Mozart sinfonia into directions ranging from 19th-century Romanticism to modern minimalism.

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Extras

Included here is a newly recorded commentary with Peter Greenaway, who gamely unpacks the film’s tributes to classic painters and the snatches of dialogue he adapted from the reported last words of various historical figures. He also describes how certain elaborate shots were achieved and recounts the film’s many interlocking games with warm humor. Interviews with Greenaway and Bernard Hill supplement these details, the latter recounting how he and the other actors balanced the director’s careful blocking with freer expressions of their own art. An archival half-hour program crafted by Greenaway includes many of the details that he covers more thoroughly on the commentary, while a brief video of his storyboards rounds out the extras.

Overall

Severin’s two-disc 4K UHD Blu-ray release of Drowning by Numbers captures Peter Greenaway’s black comedy in all its sumptuous beauty.

Score: 
 Cast: Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, Joely Richardson, Bernard Hill, Jason Edwards, Bryan Pringle, Trevor Cooper, David Morrissey, John Rogan, Paul Mooney, Jane Gurnett, Kenny Ireland, Michael Percival, Joanna Dickens, Janine Duvitski  Director: Peter Greenaway  Screenwriter: Peter Greenaway  Distributor: May 30, 2023  Running Time: 119 min  Rating: R  Year: 1988  Release Date: May 30, 2023  Buy: Video

Jake Cole

Jake Cole is an Atlanta-based film critic whose work has appeared in MTV News and Little White Lies. He is a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.

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