“Enola Holmes” (2020) Review

Dir. Harry Bradbeer; Millie Bobby Brown, Helena Bonham Carter, Louis Partridge
[3 out of 4 stars]

Since the 2009 renaissance of Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. into the titular role, nearly every possible variation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s quirky private eye has graced the screen. Benedict Cumberbatch brought the character out of the Victorian era in Sherlock (2010-17); Jonny Lee Miller transported him to New York in Elementary (2012-19); Ian McKellen’s Mr Holmes (2015) saw the private eye as an old man; and there’s even a Japanese version called Miss Sherlock (2018-), which I admittedly haven’t seen, in which Sherlock and Watson are played by women. Guinness World Records, meanwhile, lists Holmes as the “most portrayed literary human character in film and television history.” Director Harry Bradbeer is thus faced with the difficult task of balancing the expectations of over a century of canon with the need to continue the innovative streak. Stray too far and audiences will cry infidelity; simply recreate the character and they’ll be bored. Bradbeer skirts around the issue by adapting Nancy Springer’s mystery series, The Enola Holmes Mysteries, in which Enola Holmes, Sherlock and Mycroft’s younger sister (although very much not the same one we saw in Sherlock), is our leading detective. It’s to Bradbeer’s credit that he pulls off not only the adaptation but also manages to keep fans reasonably happy.

Enola (played wonderfully by Millie Bobby Brown) is a spunky teenager, raised by her unconventional mother Eurodeia (Helena Bonham Carter) in the idyllic Victorian English countryside. On Enola’s 16th birthday, Eurodeia mysteriously disappears and Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin) rush home from London for the first time in a decade to find few clues and a sister who has – to their horror – learned more about history, chemistry, and fist-fighting than about poise and manners. “Feminism,” scoffs Sherlock as Mycroft arranges for her to be sent to a finishing school. But Eurodeia is cleverer than Sherlock’s usual quarries and has deliberately left clues that only Enola can decipher. To find her mother, Enola runs off to London and is quickly wrapped up in another chase involving a young Lord named Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge). Tewkesbury is on the run from both his overbearing family and a mysterious man. Their paths, in the most predictable yet charming fashion, interweave as Enola takes on the quest to find her mother and discover the identity of the man following Tewkesbury, ultimately solving both cases before either Sherlock or Lestrade (Adeel Akhtar) can. What begins as a simple missing person case turns out to be a national concern, but with the clever Enola leading the charge, we never doubt for a minute that things will turn out alright. 

Bradbeer paints Enola’s backdrop in broad strokes, invoking the Victorian-era England of Dickens and Brontë in a way that seems to suspend it in time: the focus here is on Enola rather than the surroundings. Details about the characters and setting are hazy, but this doesn’t really distract from the plot. A suffrage “reform” bill challenges the ancestral idea of England that Tewkesbury’s family protects. Meanwhile, Eurodeia holds some sort of anarchical stance towards the ancien regime, with just enough of a Guy Fawkes-style plot to keep us on our toes (and possibly sets itself up for a sequel or five). Mycroft’s governmental position is opaque, and Sherlock doesn’t seem to be working on any new cases. London is a bit too clean (picture a magicless Diagon Alley), and the countryside is a bit too sunny to be believable. This is all to say that Enola’s London is more fairy tale than grit, more atmospheric than precise, but this doesn’t really distract from the story. 

Casting Millie Bobby Brown as Enola was probably the best choice made. Following her success as Eleven on Stranger Things (2016-21), Brown has just enough of a name to draw fans, but still has plenty of room to grow. She’s entirely believable as the inquisitive Enola, and her performance here cements her as an actor to keep an eye on. Bradbeer, who also directed several episodes of Fleabag (2016-19), employs a similar technique, giving Brown fourth-wall breaks in which she directly addresses the camera. Partridge, as her romantic opposite, brings enough charm to his role that we actually want the two to end up together, but he never overshadows her. Bonham Carter is also well-cast, but her role is mostly to let Brown shine. This feels like a deliberate choice, which will hopefully push Brown into a few A Room with a View (1985)-esque period pieces in the future. Ironically, it’s easy to forget that the great detective himself even makes an appearance. Cavill makes for possibly the most handsome but least interesting Sherlock to date – his detective skills are conveniently put on pause, letting Enola take over the chase. 

What is it that makes us return to Conan Doyle’s detective over and over again? The pipe and hat have long been left behind, and only a few constants have survived the years. Sherlock’s name promises us a thrilling mystery, one that can only be solved by a brilliant detective who can barely hold a conversation long enough to relay all the clues. Enola isn’t Sherlock, nor is she trying to be. She’s a new kind of Holmes: fiery and personable, if a bit awkward. I don’t know if she has brought enough to the iconic role to keep audiences returning for the inevitable sequels, but I was entertained enough to keep watching, especially if Bradbeer and Brown team up again.

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