Drowning by Numbers is a 1988 British-Dutch film directed by Peter Greenaway. 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:
- Bees in the Trees
- Dawn Card Castles
- Deadman’s Catch
- Flights of Fancy (or Reverse Strip Jump)
- The Great Death Game
- Hangman’s Cricket
- The Hare and Hounds
- Sheep and Tides
In Drowning by Numbers, number-counting, the rules of games and the repetitions of the plot are all devices which emphasise structure and symmetry. Through the course of the film each of the numbers 1 to 100 appear, the large majority in sequence, often seen in the background, sometimes spoken by the characters.
The film is set and was shot 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.