▶ Enola Holmes is streaming on Netflix.
Sherlock Holmes has been a consistent presence on our screens for well over a century, but perhaps never so frequently – and in so many guises – as over the past decade. Since Robert Downey Jr. kicked off the most recent spate of Sherlock revivals under the manic stylings of Guy Ritchie in 2009, we’ve been treated to interpretations by Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock (2010-17), Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes (2015) and Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary (2012-19), as well as being burdened by the memory of Will Ferrell doing that thing he does, but wearing a deerstalker, in Holmes & Watson (2018).
It’s an immediate relief, for variety’s sake if nothing else, that this young-adult-targeted Holmes affair – adapted from a series of books by Nancy Springer – shifts its focus away from the family’s most famous sibling and towards 16-year-old Enola (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown). She’s an impetuous, independent teen focussed on forging her own path in life after her mother suddenly disappears and her new guardian Mycroft Holmes (the third sibling, played in pantomime villain style by Sam Claflin) threatens her with finishing school. Escaping by train to London, she meets fellow young well-to-do runaway Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), whose pursuing family stoke the narrative’s engine, forcing Enola to play rescuing knight to his damsel in distress.
Henry Cavill is the one lumped with the thankless task of being this film’s Sherlock, his brooding handsomeness failing to compensate for the asset stripping that has robbed the iconic detective of his usual quips and scene-stealing genius; his is a character written to be upstaged.
The mantle of master detective is here taken up by Enola – who also inherits her older brother’s absent wit – with the audience playing Watson when Millie Bobby Brown addresses the camera with a sly remark or an askance eye roll. Brown is tasked with much more than recreating the usual brand of Holmesian intellectual snoopery, however, with Enola’s childhood Jujitsu lessons frequently coming in handy in encounters with baddies.
It’s a remarkable performance from the young virtuoso, who carries much of the film’s weight on her shoulders without an on-screen gang or sidekick to accompany her; she is both the emotional and the comedic core of the story and juggles these dual responsibilities deftly.
Without a consistent cast to bounce quick gags off, the fourth-wall-breaking moments are a vital vein of light relief, even if some jokes, clearly aimed at a young crowd, are grating to an adult ear. The funniest setups involve changes in disguise – including into a street urchin and a mourning widow – which allow Enola moments of playfulness whilst further highlighting her subversion of strict Victorian gender roles.
Words of feminist wisdom bequeathed by Enola’s mother (a sparingly-used Helena Bonham Carter) form the backbone of the film, culminating in an admirable concluding cry of female self-determination – a message perhaps undermined by the decision to hire men to write and direct.
Jack Thorne’s script is nevertheless proficient, as is to be expected given his acumen for adaptation – evidenced most recently by his work prepping Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for the screen – and director Harry Bradbeer is equally capable. The pair construct an unobtrusive foundation upon which Enola Holmes can stand up for herself and stand out from the crowd.
“The future is up to me”, Enola assures herself by saying in a moment of doubt, but these could just as easily be Brown’s own words: she has the talent to go wherever she chooses.
Originally published: 23 September 2020