Reading the series of books that the film Enola Holmes is based on as a kid introduced me to not only Sherlock Holmes but fostered my love for the mystery genre as a whole. That said, perhaps this Netflix adaptation would have been better served for the kind of liberal feminist discourse that was popularised (and I similarly embraced) more than a decade ago. So while it attempts a rewrite of a traditional Victorian history, the net result is still a missed opportunity to add something new to the young adult genre.
As her name suggests, the Conan Doyle spinoff concerns not the famous detective himself but his much younger sister Enola (Millie Bobby Brown). While her elder brothers Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin) are busying themselves in London, Enola is homeschooled in the countryside by her mother. Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) teaches Enola not only the deductive skills that have become her brother’s trademark but also equips her with combat techniques and a love for reading and codebreaking. When Eudoria mysteriously disappears from the Holmes property, Enola runs away and sets off to find her mother in the big city—while in hot pursuit by her concerned brothers.
Given her impressive starring debut in Stranger Things, it’s no surprise that Millie Bobby Brown is a very serviceable Enola. Her performance paints the young detective as a spunky and disagreeable but extremely likeable character to watch. The choice to have Enola frequently address the audience directly à la Fleabag (director Harry Bradbeer has notably worked on multiple episodes of the series) serves the same effect of keeping her viewers on their toes.
But Brown’s performance isn’t enough to save the movie from its own flimsy script and dated attempts at feminist messaging. The movie reveals in a piecemeal fashion that Eudoria is a radical suffragette, working on plans with other women in secret to secure their right to vote. Though Enola is initially driven to find her mother and uncover the reasons behind her abrupt departure, she encounters the viscount Tewkesbury (Louis Patridge) who is also on the run. Though they initially part ways, Enola completely shifts her attention to the boy and his pursuers midway through the film. The appearances of the suffragettes only indicate a desire to explore Eudoria’s story in more depth in a sequel (Brown, who is also credited as a producer, has stated there are plans for a follow-up in the works.) It’s not inherently bad to set up cliffhangers and anticipatory plot devices to keep viewers interested in later instalments, but building a framework out of what is to come in the future is how television is made, not movies.
In doing so, the narrative undermines any unique potential that could emerge from a story about a powerful collective of women — an interesting theme for a kid’s movie. Instead, Enola makes a conscious decision to divert from her original plan and instead protect a boy (and obvious, inevitable romantic interest) who comes from privilege and nobility. The movie frames this as a more immediate priority than seeking out Eudoria’s whereabouts. But in doing so, Enola Holmes positions itself as a relatively tame endeavour that has no new message to send to young girls and does little to subvert Enola’s gendered environment.
As an addition to the mystery genre, the attempt here is also half-hearted. Taking creative liberties with Sherlock to make him an empathetic, caring older brother rather than the steely, emotionless detective of the original books is not a particular concern. However, the appeal of Conan Doyle’s work comes not only from his characterisations, but in their meticulous crafting and unravelling of each case. Enola is supposedly similarly gifted with Sherlock’s strengths, but her abilities of reasoning and deduction are rarely put into practice. Even when they are, there is little pleasure in watching her do so, as she’s only shown decrypting letters or disguising herself — not letting the viewer in on the actual mechanisms of solving a puzzle that leads to the pleasurable a-ha! moments that define the mystery genre.
Ultimately, Enola Holmes is an enjoyable, albeit forgettable film. Disappointingly, it misses an opportunity to subvert one of our greatest cultural icons, opting for the conventions of chaste romance over drama and genuine thrills.
Enola Holmes is available to stream exclusively on Netflix now
by Keno Katsuda
Keno is a writer and freelancer in the film industry currently based in Tokyo, but she considers London home. Her favourite movie is The Big Short. She believes Alita: Battle Angel deserves a sequel and that the correct ranking for the Mission: Impossible franchise from best to worst is: 4,6,5,3,1,2. You can argue with her on Twitter or Letterboxd.