What if Sherlock Holmes had a younger sister?
The answer is pretty much what you’d expect from a modern retcon of the world-famous detective’s heretofore vague family tree. For her series of detective novels, author Nancy Springer imagined the teenage Enola as a younger sibling who shared Sherlock’s deductive intellect and bristled under the expectations of her age and gender in Victorian-era England. Her vitality, mischievous spirit, and thirst for adventure makes her a feminist icon for the moment, and an intriguing foil for her famously rigid big brother.
Bringing Enola to life for Netflix is one of the streamer’s breakout stars, Millie Bobby Brown. Enola Holmes adapts Springer’s first novel and the teen’s first case: finding her missing mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter). She enlists the help of her older brothers Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin), but they discount her almost immediately. They want to send Enola to a finishing school to receive a “woman’s education”; she’s less than thrilled by the idea. Enola quickly dodges that fate only to have another land in front of her: Viscount Tewksbury (Louis Partridge), a young lord who’s being pursued by an assassin. The budding detective suddenly has two mysteries to solve, on her first try, no less.
It’s a lot for Enola, character and film, to balance, but both manage the responsibility quite well. Director Harry Bradbeer takes his stylistic cues from the character, crafting a visual language and narrative cadence that reflects Enola’s youthful vigor. The film moves with quick feet through her journey, but we’re kept grounded by silly illustrations, old-time title cards, and Enola’s Fleabag-style fourth wall-breaking. The flashbacks to contextualize quite-obvious clues can be heavy-handed, but Bradbeer’s approach works, creating a thoroughly charming atmosphere for Enola to explore.
Enola Holmes’ quirky style and brisk pace support a story and characters that otherwise might’ve gone off the rails. That doesn’t mean the wheels don’t occasionally squeak. Enola is a thoroughly engaging character, one worthy of bearing all the hijinks, but those hijinks sometimes don’t seem worthy of her. The film’s driving mystery, Eudoria’s whereabouts, is handicapped early on by a scene that effectively reveals the motivation behind her disappearance. The Eudoria plot has thematic, political, and historical significance – in the wake of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing, it feels especially resonant – but it lacks a strong narrative urgency. The film really comes alive when Enola joins up with Tewkesbury. He represents a clever flip on the damsel-in-distress trope, and his engaging and unpredictable mystery and a delightful rapport with her make the two a winning pair. It’s easy to imagine Tewkesbury as Enola’s very own Watson in a sequel (which is apparently in the works already, so cheerio!).
Unfortunately, Enola’s familial relationships lack the richness of hers with Tewkesbury. The most disappointing is Enola and Sherlock. The film tries to have it both ways: Sherlock as an unknowable figure to challenge Enola, and a supportive – if distant – sibling to mentor her in the ways of sleuthing. Neither quite works, a shame since, in the scenes they share, Henry Cavill and Millie Bobby Brown have the kindling of a cute bond. It’s hard to decide whether Sherlock should’ve been excised or emphasized, but his role could’ve done with at least some more clarity. The eldest sibling Mycroft is supposed to be Enola’s stuffy foil, but the script and Sam Claflin’s performance convey a meanness that feels out of step. Naturally, the mother-daughter relationship is the strongest, but it takes place mostly in the past tense, making Eudoria as much a cipher as Sherlock is.
And what of Enola herself? She’s the best part of the film by a country mile, thanks in large part to Millie Bobby Brown. In her first major role outside of Stranger Things, Brown is a charming and charismatic presence, with a perpetual glint in her eye that draws you in and doesn’t let go. She has a firm hold on Enola’s plucky, irrepressible spirit, while demonstrating great emotional range and chemistry with her co-stars (especially Louis Partridge). Brown doesn’t hit a single false note, and is an absolute joy to watch.
It’s quite easy to love Enola Holmes. The film is at its best when unencumbered by duty to the Sherlock Holmes universe and instead lets loose following its lead’s exploits. Enola is such a breath of fresh air, and played with such aplomb by Brown, that you can forgive some of the less successful choices. As long as Enola is on the case, you’re guaranteed to have a good old elementary time.