One of Hollywood’s specialties is telling implausible tales in the name of realism. In a refreshing diversion, two new movies from Britain, Queen of Hearts and Drowning by Numbers, tell implausible tales in the name of fantasy. Both are independent produc-
tions by British directors working with modest budgets. And both are allegories about taking risks, playing games and getting revenge. But the similarities end there. Queen of Hearts is a light, operatic romance about an Italian immigrant who gambles his family’s fortune in
games of chance. Pure whimsy, it has a clockwork plot, spring-loaded with a happy ending. By contrast, Drowning by Numbers is a surreal, satirical descent to the dark side of English gamesmanship. It is a brilliant black comedy about three women who murder their husbands without remorse—and with the complicity of the local coroner.
There have been scores of movies about Italian-Americans in New York City, from The Godfather to Moonstruck. As a film about an immigrant family in contemporary London, Queen of Hearts offers a new twist on Little Italy. A fairy tale about family roots, it is written with nostalgic wit by Tony Grisoni, the British-born son of an Italian immigrant. And it is nimbly directed by Jon Amiel, who filmed 1986’s internationally acclaimed BBC TV series, The Singing Detective.
Accompanied by a sound track of surging harps and strings, the narrative begins with a wild chase against a sweeping backdrop of sienna towers and ochre rooftops in the medieval Italian town of San Gimignano. Against her wishes, Rosa (Anita Zagaria) has been promised to the crude and violent Barbariccia (Vittorio Amándola). Rejecting his advances, she elopes with her suitor of choice, Danilo Qoseph Long). Narrowly eluding Barbariccia—who, wielding a butcher knife, chases Danilo to the top of a tower—they flee and emigrate to England. There, they raise four children in rapid succession. The youngest, 10-year-old Eddie (Ian Hawkes) serves as the story’s ironic narrator.
One Christmas Eve, Danilo receives some advice from a suckling pig speaking to him in a vision. “Only if you trust the coins will you become a man of property—but beware the King of Swords,” warns the pig. Both the coins and the swords refer to the symbols on Tarotlike playing cards. Taking the pig’s words to heart, Danilo makes a small fortune in a card game—enough to buy a small bar called The Lucky Café and to make a down payment on a gleaming new cappuccino machine. The family prospers. But, of course, the King of Swords— and the vengeful Barbariccia—are bound to show up sooner or later. When they do, Queen of Hearts shifts into high gear, completing the symmetry of the plot with melodramatic finesse.
Spanning three generations, Danilo’s family is full of colorful characters. His dour grandmother complains to her priest during confession about the sins of her in-laws. His ailing grandfather clutches a mysterious box that he says will “make things right.” His eldest boy betrays the family for a fast buck and a shiny suit, while young Eddie makes mischief with a street urchin. Some of the characters are deliberate archetypes, as flat as playing cards. But strong acting makes them come alive on screen. Living up to their symbolic roles as king and queen of hearts, both Long and Zagaria are touching in their vulnerability, lending emotional ballast to a buoyant romance.
In Drowning by Numbers, love does not float; it sinks. An English trifle of the arcane, it is a movie about numerology, nude women, dead men, decay, insects, sheep, the seaside and
English gamesmanship. The story concerns three characters, each named Cissie Colpitis—a grandmother Goan Plowright), a daughter Guliet Stevenson) and a granddaughter Goely Richardson). One at a time, at measured intervals, all three women murder their husbands by drowning. Each time, it is an almost casual act of resentment. After Cissie Ohe drowns her drunken spouse in a bathtub, she offers various excuses to the coroner— “because he was unfaithful, because he stopped washing his feet, because his nose was too red, because he had a hairy backside.”
Each of the women persuades the local coroner, Madgett (Bernard Hill), to turn a blind eye. And in each case, he takes the perpetrator out for a drive in his black Jaguar and tries to extract a romantic concession in exchange— without much success. Living with his son in a seaside house, Madgett is an eccentric who delights in playing peculiar games with such names as Hangman’s Cricket, and Sheep and Tides. He keeps a herd of sheep on the beach— “for emergencies,” he says, explaining that they are useful for insomnia.
The coroner’s son, a bespectacled lad named Smut Gasón Edwards), has developed his father’s flair for games into a morbid hobby. The way other English schoolboys spot locomotives and make lists of their numbers, Smut likes to monitor deaths. Whenever he finds an animal killed by the roadside, he marks the spot with a slash of paint and sets off some fireworks. “A great many things die violently all the time,” says Smut. When human corpses start cropping up, he has a heyday.
Meanwhile, suspicious relatives of the deceased begin conspiring against the coroner, holding campfire vigils under the local water tower. Eventually, they confront Madgett, who challenges his pursuers to a tug-of-war. But the movie’s ultimate master of gamesmanship is its writer-director, British film-maker Peter Greenaway. The movie is itself an intricate game, an Alice-in-Wonderland world riddled with absurd rules. The opening scene shows a girl skipping rope while counting stars. She stops at 100—“once you’ve counted 100,” she says, “all the others are the same.” Then, as the story unfolds, it is paced by the numerals 1 to 100, which appear one by one, painted and printed around the landscape like clues in a scavenger hunt.
Greenaway—whose earlier features include The Draughtsman ’s Contract and A Zed and Two Noughts—arranges the movie’s images with a painter’s eye. Using a special process to alter the color values in the processed film footage, he creates scenes of English countryside that look more like paintings than photography. Death lurks in the fertile landscape like an animate force, intimidating the men and intriguing the women. In the end, the story adds up to a feminist revenge fantasy, vicariously played out from a male point of view. All in all, it is great fun. And in the dark and fathomless depths of Drowning by Numbers, that counts for a lot.
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