Since the first Sherlock Holmes story from author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was published in 1891, there have been countless iterations of the consulting detective in print, stage, and screen. Thanks to modern performances from Robert Downey Jr. (Sherlock Holmes), Jonny Lee Miller (Elementary), and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), it’s safe to say that Doyle’s premiere creation is locked-in with audiences everywhere. Though most are likely familiar with Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft, it’s less likely that the Holmes brothers’ younger sister Enola jumps as readily from the tongue under questioning. Introduced in the Sherlock Holmes books between 1923-1927, Enola only truly escaped the bonds of literature in the 2017 fourth season of the BBC program Sherlock, depicted there as Eurus Holmes (Sian Brooke), the more brilliant and sociopathic member of the Holmes family. Still though, there is another version of the younger sister, one which spawned six books between 2006-2010 written by Nancy Springer, which approaches Enola not as predator, but a budding brilliant mind in her own right. These books serve as the inspiration for Enola Holmes, adapted by Jack Thorne (The Secret Garden) and directed by Harry Bradbeer (Fleabag), a vigorous young adult period adventure tale that skewers tradition in favor of modernity.
On her 16th birthday, Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown) wakes to discover that her constant companion, her mother (Helena Bonham Carter), has gone missing. When her brothers Mycroft and Sherlock (Sam Claflin and Henry Cavill) respond unfavorably to Enola’s appearance and what appears to be their mother’s disregard for responsibility, it’s decided that Mycroft will ensure Enola will attend a finishing school while Sherlock hunts for the absconded. Frustrated by their disregard for her thoughts, Enola escapes her brothers, intent on tracking down her mother on her own. However, in the process, Enola finds herself involved with the young Lord Tewksbury (Louis Partridge), himself on the run from his family and, unknowingly, steps right into her first case.
For those who’ve read the books, be prepared for a few changes. It may be expected as transitioning from page to screen often requires a few indulgences and Thorne recently proved with The Secret Garden of being more than up to the task. So keep in mind that portions of the six-book series are utilized here to create Enola Holmes, yet no singular choice seems to in anyway inhibit future stories, should they be called upon. Additionally, Enola is raised in age from 14 to 16, likely to make some of the ideological battles a little easier to attempt. She is, in the words of Louisa May Alcott, a little woman and this transitory period is explored both with the character and her needs, as well as within the larger scope of England 1884, itself on the verge of glorious revolution with the Representation of the People Act which extended voting rights. For the most part, Thorne balances the needs of the character, the narrative, and dued respect to the source material with relative ease. If not for a downshift in focus from finding Mrs. Holmes to the case of Lord Tewksbury, Enola hums with high-spirits as the Holmes mind in combination with Bradbeer’s adept direction and Adam Bosman’s (The Crown) editing culminates in a rousing escapade.
If you’ve seen the trailer for Enola, then you’re aware of two distinct things: Enola speaks directly into the camera and the trailer’s use of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin.” Both inspire a sense of whimsy as Enola makes you a co-conspirator in her mischief and the song itself is one of personal liberation. While the film proper does contain elements which focus on the latter, the score is a bit more traditional, sounding something more akin to what audiences are familiar with after Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock. The former, however, remains true throughout the course of Enola and it is amazing. Fans of BBC’s Fleabag will recognize the fourth-wall breaking, itself not a new concept, but one which felt revolutionary within the context of the television show, and it feels the same here. Whenever Enola engages the audience — whether alone or with company — the inclusion feels seamless and natural. More than anything, and some of this could be due to Brown’s natural charm and charisma, it never feels like a crutch to the overall story. There are moments, certainly, when the extended fourth-wall breaks are expository, but, largely, they enable the audience to better understand Enola’s thinking. This would not work for every book-to-screen adaption, but it excels here, enabling the audience to be as much in the know as Enola, working through each problem along with her.
Whether Enola Holmes is the start of a Netflix franchise or it’s a one-off, what Thorne and Bradbeer is incredibly delightful and, ultimately satisfying. Some of this translates through the performances of the cast, all of whom seem to be having a ball. Bonham Carter rarely, if ever lately, seems to be not having fun and her role as Mrs. Holmes offers her the chance to be mysterious, dangerous, deadly intelligent, hilarious, and matronly all in one. Claflin and Cavill do little more than fit the stereotypical roles expected of a period version Mycroft and Sherlock, but, even in their traditional stiffness, there is a hint of something lying underneath, something which even the characters themselves would deny under questioning. Endangered Tewksbury is neither frail bachelor nor white knight and Partridge manages to find a level balance so that his strengths appeal to the weaknesses within Enola without ever overtaking. Tewksbury would, entirely, be dead without Enola and Partridge’s performance upholds this notion. The rest, though, is due to the script which playfully toys with the notions of “proper behavior” and the difference between blind nationalism and social anarchy, and it does it all while wearing a corset, hip enhancer, and, on at least one occasion, heels. Again, much of the success comes from the innate talents of Brown, but it certainly helps that the writing doesn’t dumb any concepts down, even if the entirety is a Sherlock tale for young adults, nor does it belittle or patronize its target audience. In so doing, Enola Holmes ends up being fun for anyone who is open to it.
Head to Nancy Springer’s official website for more information on the author.
Available for streaming on Netflix September 23rd, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.