Sherlock Holmes for the Stranger Things generation.
Enola Holmes splashes onto our Netflix screens already running — or rather, cycling, in a nod to its lead actor’s most famous role. Millie Bobby Brown’s stylish petticoat-laden protagonist fills us in quickly on her life while she rushes through the picturesque English countryside to meet her idolised older brother Sherlock (Henry Cavill). Yes, it’s a new adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, based on a young adult book series, but don’t let that fool you: Sherlock is very much a background character in this piece, suggesting the genre of the movie rather than dictating what will happen.
The film manages to keep up the fast pace throughout, as we follow Enola to London. She’s trying to escape Sherlock and Mycroft (Sam Claflin), who want to send her to boarding school. Along the way, she meets a young man also on the run from an unwanted situation; thus begins the main mystery of the story.
Brown carries the movie on her own for much of the runtime, and she’s quite capable of doing so. Since Stranger Things, it’s been obvious that she has a particular screen presence, and that her acting skills are pretty good. Enola’s mystery-solving skill takes its cues from the typical Sherlock style but avoids the hyper-focus and detail-oriented nature seen in Robert Downey Jr or Benedict Cumberbatch’s versions of the character (Cavill’s performance does pastiche this to a degree). Rather, she focuses more on codes and cyphers, and on disguise. This knack for disguise gives Brown plenty of opportunities to try on a variety of costumes throughout the movie. Enola is also scrappy and resourceful, so Brown gets up to a lot of mischief in the role.
Structurally, the film has a few big flaws. One thing that ruined my immersion was the reliance on breaking the fourth wall. We see this right from the first scene, Enola cycling along talking to the camera, and it continues throughout — and each time Brown rolls her eyes or winks at the camera, I just thought that her emotions could have been expressed in a more natural way.
The other is the reliance on flashbacks to show Enola’s childhood and relationship with her mother (played brilliantly by Helena Bonham Carter). We learn whole aspects of Enola’s history and character only when they suit the story. It takes until mid-story for us to learn that Enola is accomplished with jujutsu, rather than it being an established part of her character. Some of the flashbacks were also shown piecemeal, leaving me wondering exactly what had happened when. This removes any sense of peril when bad things happen since the movie could just reveal something else about Enola’s character that would magically allow her out of the situation.
On the other hand, the central mystery was written well, and the twists, while foreshadowed and guessable, were not telegraphed too far in advance; likewise, they were not unreasonable or ridiculous.
Like all good period dramas, Enola Holmes‘ politics are rooted in modern values. Enola is fighting to find her way in a man’s world, as is her mother, and as are countless women to this day. The tone is set by her brother Mycroft entering the overgrown family home (straight out of Grey Gardens) and baulking at a feminist book in the first ten minutes. In an understated scene, a Black woman tells off Sherlock for not caring about politics. It’s his position at the top of society that affords him such a privilege; very much a notion that we are familiar with today. This alone makes it a more compelling adaptation than other recent Sherlock Holmes series.
The film uses real-life historical politics and looks at them through modern eyes — the voting reform, which enfranchised a wider range of men in the UK, is central to the plot, as is the fact that it was an important precedent to the granting of suffrage to women. Gender expectations are also played with, although in perhaps simplistic ways, such as the young man liking flowers more than Enola.
Despite its flaws, the film is solid, pure escapism — and isn’t that what we all need right now? Don’t go in expecting it to reinvent Sherlock Holmes; it has nothing so profound to say. But you can certainly go in expecting to be taken on a fun romp through upper-class England in the late 19th century, and enjoy the mystery that the story sets up.