Set in England during the year 1884, Enola Holmes tells the story of a 16-year-old girl named Enola (Millie Bobby Brown), the baby sister of world-renowned super sleuth, Sherlock Holmes (Henry Cavill). Enola grew up in the English countryside, raised by her eccentric mother, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter).
Eudoria is an unconventional woman hellbent on bringing up a well-read, scrappy, and free-spirited daughter. Smart and scrappy aren’t positive traits for a young woman to have in the 1880s. But this fact matters little since the pair live together in isolation.
Enola’s world gets thrown into chaos one morning when Eudoria disappears. Enola’s two older brothers, Sherlock and Mycroft (Sam Claflin), return home to unravel the mystery and deal with their kid sister. Buttoned-up Mycroft and feisty Enola are like oil and water. He intends to ship her off to a finishing school to become a proper young woman, forcing her to escape to London to search for her mother. This adventure draws Enola out into a world where she doesn’t fit in, a society that doesn’t value intelligent, independent, free-thinking women.
Enola Holmes works well on two critical levels. With its charming characters, snappy dialogue, and compelling mystery, it’s the type of fun and breezy adventure story that younger viewers will eat up. But it’s also a thoughtful social commentary that will engage older viewers on a deeper level. This popcorn flick also serves up food for thought.
This period piece/mystery rehashes plenty of the genre’s familiar beats, but director Harry Bradbeer gives the material a timely urgency. Sherlock is a character in the story, and the plot centres on solving a mystery, sure. But that’s not what the film is really about. Jack Thorne’s screenplay celebrates courageous women, born ahead of their time. The story examines what it means for girls to grow up in a society that stifles their growth at every turn and limits what type of women they can become.
Is anything more maddening than being a person ahead of their time? Knowing the truth can be a lonely affair. Imagine Galileo’s frustration as he was accused of heresy for stating the earth goes around the sun. Consider the torment inflicted upon John Lewis for demanding basic civil rights. These men suffered for acknowledging simple truths as the world around them lived a lie. Enola Holmes highlights the admirable conviction required to live as one of the few sane minds in a world gone mad.
Eudoria comes off as a bit of a kook, but how could she not? She’s more intelligent, more empathetic, and more competent than 99% of the men in her time. She opts to raise her daughter in a social bubble, keeping Enola away from the awful reality of life as a woman in 1884. Eudoria knows she can’t shelter Enola forever. The best she can do is raise her to be twice as impressive as her male counterparts. With her encyclopedia of a brain, martial arts training, and proficient use of costumes, Enola is essentially Batman.
It’s impressive how Enola uses disguises to make her way through society by weaponizing gender stereotypes. She dresses as a boy to go unnoticed; she gets all dolled up to escape detection. The little rascal even dresses like a widow to make people too uncomfortable to pay her any mind. Society has always shifted between fearing powerful women and outright dismissing them. Enola is a genius at using peoples’ preconceptions to her advantage, leveraging their prejudice against them with surgical precision.
Enola Holmes is mostly a light and easy watch, but it does get dark in places. At times you’ll marvel at the dreamy countryside, taking in the sunlight dappled forests to the sound of Daniel Pemberton’s whimsical score. And then the film does a 180, and DP Giles Nuttgens transforms Enola’s world into a waking nightmare with a bleak visual palette. The world goes from sun-kissed fantasy land to Tim Burton-esque as Enola’s pursued through creaky-old warehouses with gaslit lamps and soot-stained walls. Factor in the Consolata Boyle’s (The Queen) elaborate costumes and Michael Carlin’s (Colette) transporting production design and Enola Holmes becomes a visual treat.
Netflix based this adaptation on Nancy Springer’s young adult fiction series, The Enola Holmes Mysteries. Thanks to the character’s impressive debut – anchored by a charming Brown performance – expect many more Enola Holmes movies in the coming years. Brown’s charismatic turn is strong enough to carry a lesser film. That this movie also works as both a spirited adventure and an empowering coming-of-age tale is the icing on the cake.
The further you go back, the tougher it gets for women, people of colour, and the LGBTQ community, to see themselves positively represented in popular culture. The beauty of this movie is in how it ferociously revises the mythology of one of history’s most iconic characters, Sherlock Holmes.
Enola Holmes delivers a bold look at the past and imagines the world, not as it was, but how it should have been in the first place.