In the well over a century since authors started writing their own stories starring Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature character, Sherlock Holmes has been revived from the dead in the future, fought Lovecraftian horrors and been transported to the Holodeck of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Occasionally, these professional fan-fictions have a subversive aim, and the kind offered by Nancy Springer’s YA series of Enola Holmes books is among the most appealing for today’s audiences: What if Sherlock, who was famously distrustful of women, actually inherited his astonishing qualities from a proto-feminist mother? And what if he had a long-discarded baby sister who showed similar gifts of deduction?
Adapting the first of Springer’s books as the origin tale in what’s surely intended to be a series of Netflix movies, Harry Bradbeer’s Enola Holmes makes a fine showcase for Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown, who gets to drop the layers of anxiety and trauma that make that show’s El such a compelling character. While no one will ever accuse the picture of overestimating its viewers’ intelligence — Jack Thorne’s script rarely misses the chance to drive a moral point home with one more pound to the head of the nail — it successfully imagines a place for its heroine in Holmes’ world, then convinces young viewers that Enola needn’t be constrained by that world’s borders.
A light but enjoyable feminist spinoff.
Bradbeer directed both seasons (minus the first episode) of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, and seems to have fallen in love with the show’s signature direct-address: Enola starts the film off by talking to us, and will make asides to the camera frequently throughout the film. It’s not as valuable a device here as it was there, largely because Enola doesn’t need to explain herself nearly as much as the brilliant train-wreck character Waller-Bridge created. Her motivations and emotions are perfectly legible from the start, and those little straight-to-camera reaction shots, usually done for mild comic effect, come to feel cloying. In fairness, the device will probably seem much more natural to teen viewers, but it wouldn’t have taken much to make this film equally enjoyable to their elders.
Enola was born when Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes (Henry Cavill and Sam Claflin) were nearly grown. Their father died and the brothers moved off around the same time, leaving Enola to be raised as their mother saw fit. Eudoria Holmes (Helena Bonham Carter) was a home-schooler extraordinaire, producing a well-read child who’s a master of fencing and chess and chemistry. But she gave her no first-hand knowledge of the world beyond their increasingly overgrown country estate. Then, on the morning of Enola’s sixteenth birthday, Eudoria vanished, leaving only a lovely but cryptic birthday present.
Forced to return home after many years away, the brothers seem rather put out. Sherlock initiates an unhurried investigation, seeming to know on some level that his mother has agendas he may not want to uncover, while the stiff-necked Mycroft has a more urgent mission: Get this unsocialized child into a finishing school whose headmistress (nicely played by Fiona Shaw) turns girls into “acceptable wives and responsible mothers.”
But Enola needs no husband, not even friends — “I have my own company,” she declares. (Note that, spelled backward, her name is “alone.”) So, having found some wordplay clues among her mother’s things, she escapes from her elders and heads toward London disguised as a boy. It’s not the hub of intellect and civilized behavior she expects; but somewhere there, she’ll uncover the secret project Eudoria has been planning for years.
Along the way she meets another teen runaway (Louis Partridge), the ludicrously named Viscount of Tewkesbury, Marquess of Basilweather. Long-locked and delicately featured, Tewkesbury could pass for a girl as easily as Enola could for a boy. The film furthers the traditional gender role reversal by making him an expert on flowers, and by having Enola mount a physically daring rescue when a mysterious villain in a bowler hat (Burn Gorman) attacks the boy.
This is a first love in the making, surely. But first, the two must split up so Enola can get into trouble on her own. Brown displays a knack for mixing determination with hints of humor (Enola is prone to overthinking things, and to getting in over her head), though the film doesn’t intend to become an action comedy.
Talk of women’s suffrage and social reform runs throughout the movie, pitting those who are privileged by old hierarchies against the film’s heroes and viewers. Among the script’s sometimes too-obvious exchanges along these lines, one cuts to the quick: A woman (Susan Wokoma) whose teahouse is a front for a female martial arts academy tells Sherlock that his indifference to political matters isn’t proof of his intellectual high-mindedness; it just shows that he has no need to change the world.
Sherlock shares many characteristics with his kid sister and his mother, but that’s not one of them. And more than any gathering up of obscure clues and elementary deductions, that difference is plenty of reason for Enola Holmes to open up the Baker Street mythology and invite an audience of newcomers to have their way with it.
Production companies: Legendary Pictures, PCMA
Cast: Millie Bobby Brown, Louis Partridge, Henry Cavill, Sam Claflin, Helena Bonham Carter, Adeel Akhtar, Fiona Shaw, Frances de la Tour, Burn Gorman, Susan Wokoma
Director: Harry Bradbeer
Screenwriter: Jack Thorne
Producers: Mary Parent, Alex Garcia, Ali Mendes, Millie Bobby Brown, Paige Brown
Executive producers: Joshua Grode, Michael Dreyer, Harry Bradbeer
Director of photography: Giles Nuttgens
Production designer: Michael Carlin
Costume designer: Consolata Boyle
Editor: Adam Bosman
Composer: Daniel Pemberton
Casting director: Jina Jay
PG-13, 124 minutes