Based on Nancy Springer’s young adult novels, Enola Holmes is the latest twist on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth. And this one imagines the consequences of Sherlock and Mycroft having an estranged teenage sister, Enola (Millie Bobby Brown), who’s ahead of her time when it comes to the fairer sex’s treatment in Victorian England…
Adapting the first book from 2006, The Case of the Missing Marquess, prolific screenwriter Jack Thorne (His Dark Materials, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) essentially combines Guy Ritchie’s stylised Sherlock Holmes movies with Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), replacing darkness and edginess with fun and feminism. The creative decision to have Enola break the fourth wall is the film’s only memorable creative choice, which must have come from Thorne’s pages… and yet it’s intriguing the director is Harry Bradbeer, someone best-known for helming episodes of Fleabag, where Phoebe Waller-Bridge kept confiding to the camera too.
Enola Holmes is being raised alone (spell her first name backwards) by her doting mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter), having great fun in a ramshackle mansion without her two old brothers’ influence. But when her mum goes missing without a word, Enola decides to investigate matters herself, despite how Mycroft (Sam Claflin) and Sherlock (Henry Cavill) would rather she leave things to them and instead attend a finishing school to learn deportment and more lady-like skills.
As a strong-willed and feisty fourteen-year-old, Enola instead sneaks away to find Eudoria after following a clue left behind. And as her brothers search for her, helped by Inspector Lestrade (Adeel Akhtar), Enola gets becomes embroiled in another mystery when she meets the young Viscount Lord Tewksbury (Louis Partridge) on a train—chased by a bowler-hatted assassin (Burn Gorman).
The premise of there being a hitherto unmentioned Holmes sibling isn’t new. Non-canonical Holmes brothers Sigerson (from 1975’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother) and Sherrinford (from 1962’s fictional biography Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street) already exist. More recently, the BBC’s Sherlock modernisation imagined a brilliant but insane sister called Eurus. But the idea of there being a teenage sister offers something different and fun, particularly as the character shuns Victorian norms and wants acceptance for herself rather than follow expectations of what a woman should be. The way Enola confides to the camera (to us) is also a contemporary breaking of the rules, which neatly contrasts her place in a film that’s otherwise a fairly straight adaptation of this world.
Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things) is an undoubted star on a path to adult stardom, and she imbues this role with humour and personality. A great deal of its success rests on her young shoulders, and she never puts a foot wrong. Even when Enola’s fourth-wall-breaks are more cringe-making than comical, Brown gets away with it. The character’s tailor-made for her skills and seeing anyone else as Enola wouldn’t be as appealing.
Unfortunately, a strong premise and excellent led casting only gets you so far. While Enola Holmes is enjoyable enough to sit through, it never soars to great highs and feels low-key and cosy. I often find that Netflix movies seem to lack a sense of legitimacy, as they often feel more like feature-length TV pilot episodes. And that’s the case here. A season of episodic mysteries would’ve been preferable because the scope of Enola Holmes doesn’t justify the time spent watching it.
The mystery of Eudoria’s disappearance seems like it’ll be the beating heart of the story, but it grows more boring to watch and ends up nowhere special. The resolution is quite risible. The story becomes more interested in Enola’s upper-class love-interest she meets on a steam train. And by that point, even the fourth-wall-breaking takes a backseat because Enola then has another character to bounce thoughts off. It also helps that Tewksbury is the opposite of Enola; having grown up surrounded by family and servants, then taught feminine things like how to identify flowers. Louis Partridge and Millie Bobby Brown have good chemistry together, so it’s a shame the film doesn’t commit to making his lordship her ‘Dr Watson’.
Sam Claflin and Henry Cavill are both fine as the more famous Holmes siblings, although the dynamic between them isn’t dramatic enough. This is likely so as not to overshadow Enola Holmes (which is already a risk if you have the actual Sherlock involved), but it does mean both brothers come across as dismissive misogynists. Cavill does show warmth as the story develops and Sherlock realises his little sister’s inherited some of his genius for puzzle-solving, but Cavill just doesn’t feel right for this part. He’s too handsome and lacks eccentricity, even accepting this movie isn’t going to portray the darker aspects of Sherlock’s personality. Dr Watson is absent, too, because Mycroft is providing that sounding board element. But no pipe or deerstalker either? If people didn’t call him Sherlock, it would be hard to identify him.
Harry Bradbeer makes a big jump from television with Enola Holmes, having worked on British dramas like No Angels, Prisoners’ Wives, Grantchester, Fleabag, and Killing Eve. The result is a movie that doesn’t feel grand enough, due to the lack of expensive set-pieces and stylish directorial choices. It’s functionally made. The trailer oozed manic energy the film itself lacks. Too many of its best moments are spread far apart. Had this been a TV series opener, I’d be happy with the production values, but as something Netflix believe could compete with big-screen offerings… it’s not up to snuff.
However, for all its disappointments, there are five more Enola Holmes books in Springer’s series, and the prospect of Netflix adapting one every few years isn’t terrible. The foundational elements are strong and things can be recalibrated slightly. I just hope there’s a stronger creative voice behind the camera next time, and the mystery involves more than solving anagrams.
UK | 2020 | 123 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Harry Bradbeer.
writer: Jack Thorne (based on ‘The Enola Holmes Mysteries’ series of books by Nancy Springer).
starring: Millie Bobby Brown, Sam Claflin, Henry Cavill, Helena Bonham Carter, Louis Partridge, Adeel Akhtar, Fiona Shaw, Frances de la Tour, Susie Wokoma, Burn Gorman, David Bamber & Hattie Morahan.