This uneven adaption of Alice Hoffman’s lyrical novel is the story of two orphan girls from a family of witches. Raised by aunts who feed them brownies for breakfast and are visited by neighbors only when they are desperate for a spell, the girls grow up looking for a way to separate themselves from their past. Sally (Sandra Bullock) longs to be “normal,” and Gillian (Nicole Kidman) longs to abandon herself to a passion that will leave her dizzy. Sally marries a man she adores and has two children before he is killed in an accident. Devastated, she blames the family curse that, according to legend, results in the early death of any man who loves an Owens woman. Gillian ends up with Jimmy Angelof, an abusive man. When Sally comes to rescue her, they accidentally kill Jimmy. Using their aunts’ book of spells, they bring him back, only to kill him again when he attacks them. They bury him in the back yard, and think they are safe. But then a policeman comes looking for Jimmy, who is not as departed as they thought.
Bullock and Kidman are ideally cast as the sisters who are very different but very devoted. Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing are delightful as the wry but wise and loving aunts, bedecked in Victorian lace. It is a pretty movie to watch, but so uneven in tone and theme that it is ultimately more frustrating than fun. We make a bargain when we go to a movie — we will accept the movie’s premise, and the film-makers won’t change the rules on us. That bargain is not kept in this movie, and the audience ends up feeling cheated.
Parental concerns include sexual references, themes of loss, tension and violence (including a scary scene with Jimmy attempting to “brand” Gillian as his possession). Some parents will also be concerned about the theme of witchcraft (benign or otherwise) and about the scenes of bringing back Jimmy from the dead and of his spirit’s possession of one of the characters.