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In Defence Of: Practical Magic

CW: domestic abuse, violence

Every September, as soon as jumper weather arrives and the leaves start changing colour, I welcome in the Autumn by watching Practical Magic. It’s a perfect seasonal film, featuring witches, idyllic New England landscapes, and a soundtrack full of Stevie Nicks and Joni Mitchell. What’s not to love? A lot, according to critics, who have given this a 23 per cent score on Rotten Tomatoes. The most common accusations levelled at the movie seem to be tonal issues and genre-jumping, with Roger Ebert insisting that Practical Magic “doesn’t seem sure what tone to adopt, veering uncertainly from horror to laughs to romance.”

The critics’ response has always baffled me – there is little horror in the film and even less comedy. Sure, the characters quip once or twice, but that’s nothing compared to the average Marvel movie. Yet, critics rarely claim confusion over whether The Avengers is a superhero movie or a comedy. When you take away the comedy element, countless well-regarded films combine horror and romance – Crimson Peak, Possession, The Love Witch, Candyman etc. Even if the film did lean heavily into comedy and horror-romance, doesn’t Scream? Doesn’t Ghostbusters?

So why did Practical Magic in particular draw so much criticism for having a few funny lines? The answer, in my opinion, lies in its marketing. The film is sold as a quirky rom-com about girls who love to have fun, but oops! Their husbands keep dying! What’s a girl to do? It’s little wonder that critics were put off when clips, which in the trailer were set to Eurythmics’ and Aretha Franklin’s Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves, were revealed to be from a scene in which a woman is kidnapped and nearly strangled by her abusive boyfriend.

This is not the only contributor to Practical Magic’s rotten score. Ebert also asks, “who was it made for?” showing at once an awareness that he was not the target audience and an inability to accept this fact. Who was it made for? Women. At its core, this is a film about sisterhood and female solidarity in the face of domestic abuse. The story of getting out of an abusive relationship with a man only to have him “haunt” you in a genuine attempt to ruin your life is one that is familiar to many women. In those situations, we very often turn to the women in our lives for support. For me, it’s incredibly moving to see the women in the Owens family risk everything for each other despite their differences, and to know the neighbourhood women overcome their suspicion of the Owenses to help Gillian get “out of a really bad relationship”. While it might seem cheesy to some, the women of Practical Magic banding together in a coven to finally banish Gillian’s abusive boyfriend and then literally sweep his ashes from the house is a deeply emotional and cathartic resolution for many. Much like the similarly maligned Jennifer’s Body, I believe the critical reception would have been very different if this movie came out today.

Sure, it’s not perfect. I will admit that one or two of the lines are slightly awkward, but in the face of this film’s big beating heart, that’s very easy to forgive. This Autumn, I urge you to watch Practical Magic with an open mind and without any genre expectations, and I guarantee you will be met by an interesting, heartfelt exploration of sisterhood, family, and identity.

Image ‘Sandra Bullock at 2013 San Diego Comic Con‘ by Gage Skidmore is licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0.