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Celebrating The Twentieth Anniversary of ‘Practical Magic’

Written by Fiona Underhill

Practical Magic was released on 16th October 1998 and I could not let the 20th anniversary of something which has brought so much joy into my life sail past unacknowledged. This is one of the films I have seen the most times in my life – it is a feel-good, comfort film for me and I often return to this happy place. I love everything about it – the actors (and the acting – which I will get to later), the production design and costume design, the music (both the score and the soundtrack) – it is just all so good.

The film features two legends of the acting world – Stockard Channing and Diane Wiest as two witchy spinster Aunts who live in one of the most stunningly beautiful houses to ever appear on film, which is on an island in New England. They are descended from a long line of witches (the Owens family) and are feared, mocked and shunned by the town until they are needed for love spells and the like. There is a curse on the Owens women, which means that when they fall in love with a man, the man dies. This happens to the parents of Sally and Gilly Owens (their father dies, then their mother dies of a broken heart) and they are sent to live with the Aunts. Sally is a naturally gifted witch but does not like using her powers and she also resists falling in love because of the curse. Gilly is the opposite and seeks out love as much as possible. Sally grows into Sandra Bullock and with a little nudge from the Aunts, does find love with local man Michael, with whom she has two children. Gilly grows into Nicole Kidman and leaves the island, travels the world and moves from one disastrous love affair to another, until she lands on “Dracula Cowboy” Jimmy Angelov (Goran Visnjic).

Sally Owens is one of Sandy Bullock’s best roles, in which she does some of her best acting (and yes I absolutely am including the role for which she won the Oscar here) and I’m willing to fight anyone who disagrees. When the inevitable tragedy strikes Michael – her portrayal of grief and heartbreak still makes me sob every time I watch it (including my most recent re-watch for this essay). The film is incredibly well structured and written and this section economically conveys the grieving process more efficiently than many more critically-acclaimed arthouse indies.

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Practical Magic features my dream house and is the film location I most covet. The kitchen is absolutely huge and stunning – with its dark wooden floor, cream wooden cabinets and Bristol sink. The kitchen is the setting for some key scenes, such as when Gilly and Sally try to raise Jimmy Angelov from the dead and of course; “Midnight Margaritas!” The best part of the house is the greenhouse/conservatory/orangery which is attached to the kitchen and is filled with all of the plants and herbs which the Aunts use in their potions and spells. Two key scenes takes place here – one where child Sally wishes for an ‘impossible man’ with one green eye and one blue and later when adult Sally is gently interrogated by a man who may just fit this exact description: Officer Gary Hallet (Aidan Quinn).

Sandy’s hair and costumes – in every single scene – are to die for and have aged incredibly well, in my opinion. I would still wear pretty much everything she wears in this film, to this day (there is one instance of bad chunky shoes, but we will forgive one misstep). She even wears glasses in one scene and plaits in another. If I had to be pinned down to one favourite look, I think it would have to be the dress Sandy wears in the penultimate scene (before the Halloween finale) – it features green leaves and dark red roses. Sandy has curly hair here and the scene takes place in the garden – it is all just incredibly romantic and also Romantic (as in reminiscent of the Romantic era in art and literature).

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The music in Practical Magic is one of its main strengths. I discovered recently that my favourite composer – Michael Nyman – wrote a complete score for the film which was rejected at the last minute and replaced with one by Alan Silvestri. Nyman’s score can by found on YouTube and is beautiful of course, but it’s hard to imagine anything but Silvestri’s iconic score with the film now. The soundtrack is also immense and in my regular rotation to this day – of course, actual certified witch Stevie Nicks features heavily with ‘Crystal’ being especially fitting. The use of Nick Drake’s ‘Black Eyed Dog’ in the tragic scene involving Sally’s husband mentioned earlier is another reason why that whole section is so good. Faith Hill’s ‘This Kiss’, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Case of You’ and Michelle Lewis’ ‘Nowhere and Everywhere’ all add to the ethereal, dreamy quality which combines with the film’s cliff-top setting, overlooking crashing waves so sublimely. The last absolute banger I want to highlight is Harry Nilsson’s ‘Coconut’ which accompanies my favourite scene in the whole film – “Midnight Margaritas” (despite being factually inaccurate because margaritas do not contain coconut).

It is almost impossible to choose, but I’m now going to attempt narrow down the Five Best Scenes (or moments) from Practical Magic:

5) Gilly helps Sally get one over on the bitchy moms by rigging the phone tree. “That’s right, I’m back. Hang onto your husbands girls. Whew!”

4) Sally draws a pentagram on Jimmy Angelov’s corpse with squirty cream and can’t help having a little lick. Whom amongst us wouldn’t?

3) Jimmy’s hot ghost possesses Gilly. Gilly licks Sally’s face. “I’m feeling very into sisters right now.”

2) Gilly comes back to shake Sally out of her grief and depression; “You’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t get up, brush your goddamned teeth and take care of those little girls.”

1) MIDNIGHT MARGARITAS! (apparently these four acting legends actually got drunk in this scene)

So, there you have it. These are just some of the reasons that I love this movie and re-watch it so often. It makes me sad that we don’t make films like this anymore. Of course, it is easily dismissed as silly and light-weight (as most things about and for girls and women are). However, this film certainly does have its darker aspects – Jimmy abuses Gilly, Gilly and Sally kill Jimmy, attempt to bring him back, then bury the body. It is later discovered that Jimmy had killed a woman (and then Sally and Gary get hot and heavy on top of the crime scene photos). If anything like this film was made today, two high-profile and well respected actors would not be involved and it would dispense with the darker aspects  so it could be aimed purely at children. Modern day Hollywood would have no clue how to market this film, therefore it would not be made. I am incredibly grateful that twenty years ago, it could be made, as it has brought so much joy into my life. I’m sure that I’ll continue watching it for the next twenty.

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