Practical Magic is a film from 1998 about a family of witches who are cursed to have any men they truly fall in love with be doomed to an untimely death. This was a witchy romantic comedy that I was really pleased to see was actually more about the sisters and their relationship than any particular romance. In fact, I read that Practical Magic is based on a book and it makes me wonder if the book was actually less about romance and more about the relationship between the women in their family. Whatever the case, I did find the movie Practical Magic to be a delightful story about female power, bonds, and coming together to overcome adversity, even if the story is a bit muddled.
Spoilers for the movie and a trigger warning for abusive relationships below.
The movie begins with Maria Owens, the ancestor of the family, who was almost hanged for being a witch. She used magic to escape being executed and was instead exiled along with her unborn child. She thought her lover would come to save her from her exile, but when he didn’t, she cast a spell so she would never love again. However, her bitterness turned the spell into a curse that was carried through generations so that any man who loved an Owens woman would die.
This curse causes issues for our main characters, Sally and Gillian Owens, whose father died because of the curse and whose mother dies soon after from a broken heart. They are sent to live with their aunts, Frances and Jet, who raise them and teach them witchcraft. However, the girls are ostracized by the townspeople, who dislike their practices and blame them for all of the town’s problems. To escape feeling like outcasts, the two girls take different approaches: Gillian runs off to live a somewhat wild life of frivolity and Sally just tries to be normal. She marries and has two daughters, but her husband also dies because of the curse, causing her to move back in with her aunts. Not long after, Gillian calls Sally because her boyfriend Jimmy hit her. The two are about to leave when Jimmy ambushes them, but Sally drugs his alcohol with belladonna. However, she uses too much and accidentally kills him. The women try to resurrect Jimmy because they are worried about Sally going to jail. The spell seems to fail, however, and Sally and Gillian bury him in their aunts’ yard. Jimmy is dead, but his spirit is now haunting the place and eventually literally possesses Gillian. With the help of the aunts and other women in the town, Sally is able to save her sister and get rid of Jimmy’s spirit.
Before I decided to watch Practical Magic, I watched a documentary about witch trials in England, and I have to say that I adored seeing Maria Owens liberate herself from death. Historically, a lot of shitty things have been done to women, from institutionalized sexism that didn’t allow women to obtain jobs to men actually murdering them. Many women (and some men) who were killed for being witches were people who many viewed as outcasts. If you were someone the townspeople didn’t like, or widowed and without a husband, you were more than likely to be condemned as a witch.
After learning about all the atrocities that befell those accused of witchcraft, it was extremely liberating to see Maria Owens escape it. It is probably one of the best scenes in the movie, too. Maria, who is about to be hanged, jumps off the block of her own accord instead of having it kicked out from under her. This should have still killed her, but instead the rope breaks and she simply stares defiantly out at the people who condemned her with the broken noose still around her neck. This symbol of death and discrimination then becomes one of triumph. The movie later shows that the aunts keep Maria Owen’s broken noose hidden in one of the stairs and use it as a protective talisman. It becomes a symbol of what women can overcome. The only thing that I dislike about Maria Owens’s story was the curse. Yeah, it adds some interest, but it definitely undercuts the feminist message of the movie by having all the women in the family cursed to lose their husbands, even if the men were good and faithful.
The film also discusses abusive relationships through Gillian’s relationship with her ex, Jimmy. He is very possessive of her, causing Gillian to have to drug him with belladonna just to get him to sleep so she can see Sally after her husband dies. At first, Gillian doesn’t seem too concerned over how possessive Jimmy is, even when Sally points out how off it seems, but later Gillian calls Sally to come and get her because Jimmy hit her and she decided to leave him. Jimmy’s death and possession of Gillian is a very interesting way to talk about abuse and how it affects people. Jimmy haunts Gillian and won’t let her forget him and move on, which is an excellent way to talk about how someone just getting out of an abusive relationship struggles even after being separated from their abuser. It also shows the reality that so many women face—leaving an abusive relationship doesn’t always make things better and sometimes can even make things worse because their partner may hunt them down and become violent as Jimmy’s spirit does. When Jimmy kidnapped Gillian and Sally before he died, he tells Gillian he always wants her to be with him, and that’s still his goal as a spirit. He takes control of Gillian’s body when possessing her and wants her to die so he can have her. Gillian even tells Sally to just let him take her because she is the only one he wants.
However, the aunts and Sally won’t let Gillian die and call on the other women in the town for help because they need a coven in order to perform the spell to remove Jimmy’s spirit. The women who used to shun the Owens family seem more comfortable with the family after they admit to being witches and seem to want them to help perform magic. This is a really interesting premise because it makes the clear statement that all women “have a little witch in them”, basically meaning all women have power that they can use. Furthermore, it can also be utilized as a message about sharing power. The goal of feminism is for all women and all people to be equal in society. It is not about a certain group of women having power where others do not. By bringing the other women in the town together and letting them share in this power, the women are then able to see their own strength and abilities. It puts them on more equal footing with the Owens family.
Gillian is ultimately saved because of the love and devotion that she and Sally have for each other, which banishes Jimmy’s spirit. Gillian and Sally are very different people—Gillian is far more outgoing and wants to be herself, while Sally just wants to be normal and is far more reserved. The sisters do get along, but they also still fight, bicker, and disagree like normal sisters would. Ultimately, though, they always have each other’s backs. It was great to see female familial relationships be the focus of the story. When Gillian leaves home, she and Sally cut each other’s hands and press them together, making an oath that they will always be together and will even die together as old ladies. Later, Sally breaks open the same cut and presses their hands together using their oath and combined magic to remove Jimmy’s spirit. The bond between the sisters and the power that comes from female bonds is upheld as the ultimate form of magic in the movie.
But then there is Sally’s love interest. In the beginning of the movie, after learning of the curse, Sally curses herself to fall in love with an impossible man who had one green eye and one blue, who could ride a horse backwards and do a variety of other things, hoping that she would never fall in love because this man would never exist. Enter Gary, the cop who is investigating Jimmy’s disappearance and who can do all the things that Sally thought were impossible. He serves very little purpose in the story other than to be Sally’s love interest and to cause drama as a cop looking into the sisters. Ultimately Gary sees Jimmy’s ghost and ends up believing in magic, and the case is dropped. He then returns to be with Sally as her one true love. I guess that’s neat and all, but it’s really not the part of the story I care about. Much of the romance seems really shoehorned into the movie, and distracts from the ultimate themes of female bonds and power. The movie doesn’t seem entirely confident that a movie about female strength and female bonds will do well and tries to set it up as a romantic comedy.
Overall, I certainly enjoyed the movie, but you can tell the Powers That Be didn’t have faith in a film primarily about women doing well without a romance angle, which is a shame because the most interesting parts of the movie don’t deal with the romance. The movie’s storytelling could have been less of a mess if the writers had picked one thing to focus on as the main part of the story. The story is really not about witches who are cursed to have bad love lives; instead it’s about the Owens family and the strong women who thrive together and love each other.