Helena Bonham Carter talks putting a twist on a classic with Enola Holmes
Helena Bonham Carter is no stranger to the classics. She launched her career on E.M. Forster, collected her first Oscar nod via Henry James, has lent her singular sensibility to the inventions of Charles Dickens; with Enola Holmes, however, she delighted in the chance to have a bit of fun with English lit.
"We don't have to be too reverential, otherwise we'll make no progress," the actress, 54, tells EW. "I think [we can] take off a character that was invented in the 19th century by a man, about a man, and now go, 'Okay, we're now in a different century, and he can be seen through the eyes of a woman.'"
Based on the YA novel series by Nancy Springer, Enola Holmes (now streaming on Netflix) reimagines Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tradition by framing the Victorian mysteries around the famed detective's younger sister, Enola (a creation of Springer's, not Doyle's). Millie Bobby Brown stars as the title character, a bright teenage girl living happily in the English countryside with her mother, Eudoria (Bonham Carter), who teaches her only daughter history, botany, martial arts — everything but the ladylike pursuits of Enola's urban contemporaries.
When Eudoria mysteriously disappears, her sons Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin) arrange for Enola to be sent to finishing school, but their sister has other ideas. Using the lessons her mother taught her (and a few well-placed hints she left behind), Enola leaves for London on her own to find Eudoria and forge her own path.
"The unknown sister — I just loved the idea of it," says Bonham Carter, a self-professed fan of the original Holmes stories. "It's actually funny, because Sherlock himself is quite misogynistic, the original Sherlock. So it's like a 'f— you,' but you can't say 'f— you' to Sherlock." In the "unashamedly feminist" film, between the disappearance of Eudoria and the obscurity of Enola (despite her talents being equal to her famous older brother's), "there's a lot about invisibility, actually, and absence in the piece," Bonham Carter observes. "It's the invisible woman."
Eudoria was even less visible when Bonham Carter first read the script, which she found "enchanting" regardless. "I sort of fell in love with the whole [thing] — not the part, because the part was barely there," she recalls. "It was like the smallest, greatest part I've been offered. Nicki, my agent, said, 'You don't want to do this.' I said, 'No, no, no, no, no, there's actually so much to this woman, it's just funny that you never see her.'" (She ended up appearing more in the final film than she did in the initial script.)
Little screen time though she may have, Eudoria makes a powerful enough impression to justify Enola's desperation to track her down. Opening scenes between the pair of them depicting Enola's unconventional education get the caper off to a rollicking start: "The whole pace of this film is not very period, what we think of period," Bonham Carter says. "It's got an energy and a dynamism to it." That includes Eudoria's lively lessons in jujitsu, for which she and Brown trained prior to filming.
"I felt like I was going to be an old hand at jujitsu," Bonham Carter admits, pointing out that her character in 2015's Suffragette was based in part on martial arts instructor Edith Garrud, who also appears as a character in Enola Holmes (which should give you some hint of what Enola discovers in London), played by Susie Wokoma. "But Millie is such a quick learner that I was years behind her when it came to doing that. Although it was ironic, because I was meant to be teaching her how to do jujitsu." Either way, she adds, it is "logistically impossible" to do proper jujitsu in a corset, heels, and a full Victorian skirt.
Bonham Carter's admiration for her young costar goes beyond Brown's facility for martial arts. Before Enola Holmes, Bonham Carter had seen Stranger Things, and "thought she was amazing, she was like Jean Seberg." Working together, she noticed that the 16-year-old actress "bore a little resemblance to my daughter, who is a bit younger than Millie, so it wasn't very difficult for me to relate to this daughter of mine, you know, as Eudoria."
For her part, Brown says, "Helena is such an amazing, powerful, seasoned actor who is incredibly kind and sweet and also a really big inspiration to me." The film marks the Stranger Things star's first time carrying a movie and producing one, but she was more than up to the dual challenge, per her onscreen mum: "Millie's a phenomenon, and really extraordinary. I mean, she's everything, she's a child and she's a woman, and she's innocent and fun, and she's very sophisticated, too, and eloquent. And she is very confident about her opinions, very self-possessed, but at the same time very ready to learn and vulnerable," Bonham Carter says. "She's from a different time, and she's her own mistress. There's something very wonderful about her — and slightly scary."
Bonham Carter was won over, too, by Emmy-winning director Harry Bradbeer, who previously helmed Fleabag. "I think his taste, his eye, his sense of tone, and just his talent as a director is a big unsung-for, somewhat upstaged by Phoebe [Waller-Bridge, on Fleabag], because Phoebe's such a phenomenon, and quite deservedly so, but a lot of credit must go to him too — and you can see it in Enola," she insists. "He's a real collaborator and a great listener, and you have fun. It was really fun making it, and that was down to him."
She hopes it will be the same for those watching the film at home. "I've watched it and I thought it was a real tonic. And it's a diversion from lockdown," she says with a laugh. "It's really sweet and fun — and boy, do we need some fun now!"