Enola Holmes (2020)
Mystery runs in the family.
Enola Holmes isn’t the first visual imagining of what a third and younger female Holmes sibling would be like; that came from the mind of Steven Moffat and co., with the creation of the troubled genius Eurus in the BBC television series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. As characters, Enola and Eurus couldn’t be less alike. Eurus was a criminal mastermind whose vendetta against her older brothers Mycroft and Sherlock led to a cat and mouse game that almost broke the men physically and psychologically. Enola, on the other hand, is trying to outwit her brothers for the purpose of evading being sent to a finishing school where she will be forced to conform to the perfect model of Victorian womanhood, something she is most certainly not suited for, all the while trying to solve a set of mysteries.
Enola (Millie Bobby Brown) has been living with her widowed mother, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter), in the family’s ramshackle mansion Ferndell Hall. Her time with her brothers was remarkably short as they both left home not long after her birth. Enola has spent her life with her unconventional and deeply intelligent mother, who sets her tasks that vary from reading every book in a copiously stocked library, to science experiments, natural history, word games and ciphers, and daily lessons in jujitsu. For all of her life, she has been her mother’s boon companion, so when on the eve of her sixteenth birthday, Eudoria disappears, seemingly leaving no trace, Enola is thrust into a set of quandaries that include trying to find her absconded mother and just as urgently, how to avoid being sent away to a finishing school where she is to have the ‘wildling’ tamed out of her.
Arriving to deal with their neglected sister and to try to understand what has occurred at Ferndell Hall are Mycroft (Sam Claflin) and Sherlock (Henry Cavill) Holmes. Mycroft is stupefied by the state of the manor and scandalized by Enola’s lack of Victorian propriety and social graces. Eudoria’s education of Enola has made her, in Sherlock’s view, ‘intelligent’ but in Mycroft’s opinion, their mother has failed to instill values that a respectable young woman in 1884 should possess. As the home, and in law Enola, essentially both belong to Mycroft, the only way for the young woman to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance and to avoid the clutches of Miss Harrison’s (Fiona Shaw) school is to unravel a code that her mother left her that leads her to a small fortune, and go on the run.
Like her brother Sherlock, Enola is fond of disguise and dresses herself in her brother’s discarded boyhood clothes, fakes a trail, and alights on a train headed to London. On the train, she meets another runaway, the soon-to-be Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), who is fleeing attempts on his life after the mysterious death of his liberal and forward-thinking father. Although Enola is initially unwilling to assist the young Viscount and simply wants to be left alone to follow through her own mission, she relents when she sees just how much danger he is in from a bowler-hatted assailant (Burn Gorman) who attempts to throw Tewkesbury from the train. Thus, Enola comes to the defense of a gender-swapped damsel in distress, and two mysteries face the young detective; where is Eudoria, and who is trying to kill this mild and undeniably handsome young man?
Sitting behind the action of the film is the 1884 Reform Vote, which worked to extend the rights of voting to the common man, not just landowners. Being the Victorian era, the idea of suffrage for women is in its infancy and very much a fringe idea, and according to many, a seditious one. The backbone of the narrative is feminist. Eudoria has taught Enola she can be anyone, yet society and, by extension, her deeply conservative brother Mycroft (in the film played as the least intellectual and talented Holmes sibling) are fiercely against changes that extend power to the working classes and women. Enola is a fish out of water in more ways than one when she reaches London. Having spent her life in the haven of Ferndell Hall, she is ill prepared for the mayhem of the metropolis, and her naiveté about how to negotiate the city is at odds with her inherent cleverness and wit.
Enola’s adventures are thrilling and action-packed. Using her skills as a cryptographer, she divines part of her mother’s plan, which leads her to Limehouse, where she, once again, encounters the assailant trying to kill Tewkesbury. Enola’s skill as a fighter is impressive, and she matches the bowler-hatted man with great alacrity. The scene is a rollicking and fun addition to the mystery narrative and calls back to the original Sherlock Holmes works where his skill as a pugilist and stick fighter often got him out of situations where deductive reasoning wouldn’t cut the mustard. The balance of action and mystery is cleverly wrought by director Harry Bradbeer, who is mostly known for his work on the series Fleabag (2016-19). Like Fleabag, parts of the narrative revolve around the breaking of the fourth wall. Such a technique can be very hit and miss, but in the film, it’s a joyous way for Enola to engage with the audience and fill in story detail with humor and sometimes pathos. The audience is carried along with Enola through her adventures as an almost active participant.
Milly Bobby Brown, Stranger Things (2016 -), is charming as Enola. Her grit and humor both make for an engaging lead. Also, acting as a producer on the piece, the young actor is showing that she can easily transition from drama to comedy as well as allow her characters a rich inner life that is convincing and touching.
The rest of the cast is top-notch and carefully expended not to overshadow Millie’s lead. Henry Cavill, Man of Steel (2013), Sam Claflin, Me Before You (2016), and Helena Bonham Carter, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), are all big names with well-deserved and respected reputations as actors yet are sparingly and cleverly used. Cavill especially could have stolen the piece as Sherlock Holmes, but writer Jack Thorne (adapting from Nancy Springer’s novel) allows him to be a sympathetic foil to Brown’s Enola. Cavill has something to learn as Sherlock, not simply in terms of how to be a better and more accepting brother and son, but also to question his own level of societal privilege, which is brought to life in his exchange with the feminist jujitsu teacher and friend of Eudoria, Edith (Susan Wokoma). Edith points out that his lack of interest in politics is because he doesn’t have to think about changing a world that already suits him in every way. For Edith, Eudoria, and Enola, the road to liberation will be long and treacherous, but the women are written with strength and vigor; thus, the road will also be exciting and rewarding.
The film sets the ground for a series of sequels as Nancy Springer has written several Enola Holmes novels. With such a winning formula, it makes sense for Netflix to commission more adventures of the young detective. If they are as well-wrought as the first, they are on a recipe for success.
Enola Holmes is excellent family entertainment that will please both young and old. Although one of the chief mysteries is why Netflix Australia has given the piece an M rating when it so clearly sits at a PG. I would have no hesitation recommending it to people ten years old and above. Indubitably, with Enola Holmes, the game is indeed afoot for a quality adventure and decent mystery; but mostly, the audience will be enchanted by the young detective and her humor and humanity.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney