Following his pair of despairing urban studies, A Zed and Two Noughts and The Belly of an Architect, director Peter Greenaway turned to the sardonic countryside 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 experimental works.
One of the most sumptuous English films ever made, Drowning by Numbers revels in sun-dappled fields, moonwashed 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 and 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 the numbers 1 to 100 are contained within the film, in order, hidden somewhere 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, with the shapely Richardson getting most of the attention, 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.