Dir: Harry Bradbeer. Starring: Millie Bobby Brown, Henry Cavill, Sam Claflin, Adeel Akhtar, Fiona Shaw, Louis Partridge, Susie Wokoma, Helena Bonham Carter. 12 cert, 123 mins
Enola Holmes, a sprightly adaptation of Nancy Springer’s YA book series, has attracted its own nemesis – not Moriarty, but the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle. It didn’t take kindly to the film’s depiction of Sherlock Holmes, brother here to a teen protagonist (Millie Bobby Brown), as a man of occasional soft-heartedness. As a lawsuit argues, the world-famous sleuth only developed a capacity for emotion in his later stories, published between 1923 and 1927, and still under copyright. Only Sherlock the genius psychopath is available to the public domain.
The accusation is even more frivolous than it sounds – the Sherlock of Enola Holmes, gamely played by Henry Cavill, isn’t raging down the halls in a fit of tears. All he does is brood, lovingly framed as he lounges against trees and stares out of windows. He’s Mr Darcy for the Victorian set.
It’s a choice well-suited to the world of Enola Holmes. Enola herself is part-Austen heroine, part-#Girlboss. A woman’s book, filtered through a man’s script, then another man’s camera – it was written by Jack Thorne and directed by Harry Bradbeer – has resulted in a film filled with pleasingly enthusiastic, though inevitably shallow, proclamations of female empowerment. In some other reality, Warner Bros would have released Enola Holmes in cinemas, but the pandemic scuppered those plans and the film was sold to Netflix. It’s fit for both the big and small screen – an adventure that’s easy to get swept up in, but humble in its ambitions.
Enola has grown up in a state of blissful independence, raised single-handedly by her mother (Helena Bonham-Carter) following the death of her father and the departure of her older brothers, Sherlock and Mycroft (Sam Claflin, amusingly sniffy here). The daily curriculum encompasses astrology, herbology, beekeeping, and jujutsu. But, on the morning of her 16th birthday, Enola awakens to find her mother gone, the only trace of her being a box of codes and decoders – the first step to solving the mystery of her disappearance. Sherlock is quietly sympathetic, but too self-interested to help. Mycroft wants to pack her off to finishing school, so she can be squeezed into bustles and corsets and finally made “acceptable for society”.
“You have to make some noise, if you want to be heard,” becomes the piece of motherly advice that shapes Enola’s future. The character has a habit of delivering pithy asides to camera – a fourth-wall-breaking technique openly borrowed from Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, which Bradbeer himself directed. And Brown, who’s normally confined to scowling and flipping cars on Netflix’s Stranger Things, gets to be witty, candid, and confident – all the things a young heroine needs to inspire the next generation. But Waller-Bridge’s character looked down the lens to us, the audience, because she needed someone to perform to, a collection of co-conspirators in all the most intimate secrets of womanhood. Enola does it because she is a girl ahead of her time and we, the citizens of the future, are the only ones who can truly understand her mind. She looks at us, incredulous, whenever someone scoffs at the concept of feminism or social equality. “Do you have any ideas?” she demands, when the case becomes particularly tricky. Enola Holmes gets its wires crossed here, thinking it can be both a film about heroic exceptionalism and the necessity of collective action.
The film is set during the lead-up to the Representation of the People Act of 1884, which extended the vote to 60 per cent of all men and laid the groundwork for women’s suffrage. On her travels, Enola crosses paths with the young Lord Viscount Tewksbury (Louis Partridge), who intends to vote for the bill in the House of Lords. She realises that, despite their differences, they share a common goal. There are brief allusions, too, to the more violent tactics of the suffragette movement.
But their significance is never explored. Enola Holmes simply isn’t interested in the finer details – not when its brilliant, clever hero looms so large.