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
Flights of Fancy (or Reverse Strip Jump)
The Great Death Game
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.Joan Plowright - Cissie Colpitts
Juliet Stevenson - Cissie Colpitts
Joely Richardson - Cissie Colpitts
Bernard Hill - Madgett
Jason Edwards - Smut
Bryan Pringle - Jake
Trevor Cooper - Hardy
David Morrissey - Bellamy
John Rogan - Gregory
Paul Mooney - Teigan
Jane Gurnett - Nancy
Kenny Ireland - Jonah Bognor
Michael Percival - Moses Bognor
Joanna Dickens - Mrs. Hardy
Janine Duvitski - Marina Bellamy
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. "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.
- "Trysting Fields"
- "Sheep and Tides"
- "Great Death Game"
- "Drowning by Number 3"
- "Wheelbarrow Walk"
- "Dead Man's Catch"
- "Drowning by Number 2"
- "Bees in Trees"
- "Fish Beach"
- "Wedding Tango"
- "Crematorium Conspiracy"
- "Knowing the Ropes"
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. These are subtle ways of drawing attention to the key bars of the Mozart piece.
Reviews for Drowning by Numbers were mostly favorable, with the film garnering a 91% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert, however, gave the work two stars, praising its landscapes as beautifully photographed but also concluding, "When the movie was over, I was not sure why Greenaway made it."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, and Dead Man's Catch, for the Mutable Instrument Peaks module, have 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 learns that his father has died.