By Maureen Lee Lenker
September 23, 2020 at 10:00 AM EDT
Advertisement

"The future is up to us." So says Mrs. Holmes (Helena Bonham Carter) to her fiercely intelligent daughter, Enola (Millie Bobby Brown), in Enola Holmes, a gender-bending take on the Sherlock Holmes stories. It's an apt metaphor for what the film could mean for the mythic detective.

Releasing Sept. 23 on Netflix, Enola Holmes is based on a series of young-adult novels by Nancy Springer following her invented character Enola, the teenage sister of Sherlock and Mycroft. The film is directed by Fleabag Emmy winner Harry Bradbeer, who brings that same wry humor and breathless energy here, working off a script by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child).

Much like her idiosyncratic brothers, Enola is a rare Victorian breed — a girl who has a knack for martial arts, cryptograms, and science experiments that involve blowing things up. But when her beloved mother, who has raised her to be an eccentric creature, suddenly disappears, Enola's life is thrown into turmoil. Mycroft (an appropriately humorless Sam Claflin) wants to send her to finishing school, but all Enola wants is to outwit Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and find her mom. Things get complicated when Enola meets fellow runaway Lord Tewksbury (a winning Louis Partridge).

Credit: Netflix

An adventure that winds across familiar Holmesian settings, from Victorian London to grand English country estates, the film intersects with plenty of 19th-century politics, including a landmark Parliamentary reform bill and the stirrings of the suffragette movement, lending the proceedings real-world stakes while never losing its abundant wit and warmth.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed literary character on film and television. Considering that Irene Adler has long been the only woman able to go toe-to-toe with Sherlock, and that even more recent adaptations still have issues when it comes to female representation, it's a breath of fresh air to have a female Holmes leading the narrative (particularly one who outwits Sherlock at numerous turns). Brown is cheeky and spritely in the role. As an actress, she has a self-possessed quality that grounds the performance. Enola is bright and capable, but she's also still a teenager, a woman finding her way in the world in spite of (or perhaps because of) a profound sense of loneliness. Brown calibrates this all with ingenuity, juggling the shades of her emotional state with such aplomb you need Holmesian powers of observation to catch them all.

Cavill is perhaps an odd choice to play the eccentric, occasionally even obsequious and hubristic Holmes. His broad shoulders and chiseled jaw contrast vividly with the more wiry, nebbish take on the character we've seen from the likes of Basil Rathbone, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Robert Downey Jr., but there's something about his stolidity that works here. Sherlock lives on the fringes of polite society, but compared to the radicalism of Enola, his exploits seem quaint; Cavill's portrayal underscores this, as well as his role as Enola's pillar of emotional support.

The film is like Holmes' memory palace, a jumble of idiosyncratic letter tiles, silent movie placards, and first-person addresses to the audience. It seems to borrow the same breathless, zippy cross-cutting and action sequences from Guy Ritchie's Holmes' films, only it feminizes them, sanding down edges and giving everything more whimsy.

At this point, Sherlock Holmes is a tried-and-true property, one as ripe for franchise potential as a superhero or a Jedi. But Enola Holmes largely sidesteps all that, its heroine and plot knitted up in feminism and the tough choices women have made throughout history to claim to independence.

Both Enola and her mother's tale are dotted with tiny sacrifices, their essential radicalism belying a weary mournfulness. The central mystery itself is perfunctory, and ingenious revelations are in short supply compared to most Holmes stories. It's far more about emotional connection and self-sacrifice, how the future Enola chooses can be different than the one her mother has forged precisely because of the choices they've made — for themselves and each other.

But while the mystery might be elementary (my dear, notably absent, Watson), the storytelling is winkingly subversive, proclaiming that a new and welcome game is afoot. B+

Related content:

Comments