Practical Magic

Witchcraft Month: “Practical Magic” (1998)

Year: 1998

Runtime: 104 minutes

Director: Griffin Dunne

Writers: Robin Swicord, Akiva Goldsman, & Adam Brooks

Stars: Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Diane Wiest, Stockard Channing, Aidan Quinn, Goran Višnjić

By Morgan Roberts

“Practical Magic” (1998) has always been way ahead of its time. The film centers on sisters Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian (Nicole Kidman) who are raised by their aunts (Diane Wiest and Stockard Channing) after their parents die. The sisters learn that long ago, their ancestor was scorned by a man and vowed that if any man tried to love her or her daughter, that man would die. So the curse took Sally and Gillian’s father, and in turn their mother. Growing up, Sally was deathly afraid of love, while Gillian went looking for it in all of the wrong places. Sally ends up falling in love and losing her husband to the same curse. Meanwhile, Gillian has met the wrong man. When fate reunites the sisters, the dastardly Jimmy (Goran Višnjić) sours their reunion.

Practical Magic
Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

This film is far more than a witch movie. When we look at the way witches are used in society, they fall either into the category of an old, tattered hag or a bewitching, malicious beauty. Being a witch has historically been a bad thing. It has been a way to shame and control women. So, when a film about witches not only highlights the absurdity of some tropes, but uses it to empower the women throughout the film, it in turn, helps reclaim the power of the witch.

Sally, who has a more innate gift, is afraid of her powers. Choosing to have a more subdued lifestyle than embracing it. Gillian wants to have the same power as Sally. Instead, she uses her sexuality as a way to assert herself. As the film progresses, Sally learns that there is no shame in her power. It is her gifts which help her in the end.

“Practical Magic” is a brilliant piece of cinema; one that is so timeless, there are moments that could be present in any film made in 2020.

Moreover, “Practical Magic” is more than a film about witches. It is about femininity, domestic violence, historical trauma, and sisterhood. All of our main characters from Sally to Gillian to the aunts are women. There are very few men seen throughout the film. And each woman represents and holds themselves differently. They all express their femininity in different ways.

Then there are elements of domestic violence. Gillian has to flee Jimmy, a man with a violent history – and a violent present. Then, after Sally and Gillian kill Jimmy, he never really leaves. Gillian remains stalked by this man who abused her even after his death. Much like in life, he controls her life, even possessing her. Very rarely do we see the way that domestic violence is all-consuming. Even if there is an end to the relationship, the mark that violence leaves still finds its way to creep in.

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Historical trauma is a huge arch of this film. The film begins with an ancestor being wronged by a man. Due to her pain, she swears off men, attempting to protect her own daughter. Historical trauma, in essence, is trauma inherited by someone else. Survivors of the Holocaust are typical examples of what historical trauma does, as children and grandchildren of survivors have shown similar anxieties to those who survived the Holocaust. But all people experience trauma, and that trauma shapes them as people, and if they have children, it shapes them as parents. In “Practical Magic,” we see this trauma being passed down from generation to generation, as the ancestor has essentially cursed any man to fall in love with an Owens woman. In turn, if those women do fall in love, they face the inevitable trauma and loss of their spouse/partner. Thus, they’ve inherited the same trauma their ancestor tried so hard to spare them from.

The power of sisterhood can be found throughout the film. Gillian and Sally have an intense bond. From childhood into adulthood, the two sisters can intrinsically sense what the other feels and experiences. After Sally’s husband dies, Gillian senses her sister’s grief, coming to her side when Sally is so grief-stricken, she cannot get out of bed. When Gillian was in trouble, before the phone rang, Sally already knew her sister was in need of her help. And at the end, when Gillian is stalked and possessed by Jimmy’s spirit, it is their love as sisters that saves her.

“Practical Magic” is a brilliant piece of cinema; one that is so timeless, there are moments that could be present in any film made in 2020. The writing is superb. The direction is very clear. The soundtrack is full of bops. Every piece putting together “Practical Magic” is simply extraordinary.

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