A new Holmes property! It’s been a while since I was suitably impressed by Ian McKellan’s turn as the famous detective in Bill Condon’s Mr Holmes, and one of the world’s most adaptable franchises will always find new ways to get on-screen, whether he’s taking on Jack the Ripper or travelling through time. But of course, it isn’t “he” this time, but rather “she”: an adaptation of Nancy Springer’s novels, focusing on the hitherto unseen younger sister of one Sherlock (and Mycroft) Holmes.
There was a lot about this that I was excited about. There was the cast, and I don’t mean Henry Cavill or Helena Bonham Carter or Sam Claflin, but instead Millie Bobby Brown, one of the most exciting young actresses around, who is at least 50% of the reason that Stranger Things is as good as it is. Having whet her beak in features with an acceptable showing in the otherwise forgettable Godzilla: King Of The Monsters, here she has the lead and the chance to really make her mark on a burgeoning franchise. It was also a proper feature debut for director Harry Bradbeer, mostly known so far for his extensive TV work, so that was exciting too. And I do love a good twist on the Holmes story, whether he’s appearing on the Enterprise holodeck or teaming up with Batman, and this property has a very period-appropriate twist: putting the mystery-solving emphasis on the other gender, with Sherlock as a support. Enola Holmes had some kudos from me before minute one, but was it worthy of it?
Enola Holmes (Brown) lives a carefree life with her mother Eudora (Bonham Carter) in the country, keeping an eye on the famous exploits of brother Sherlock (Cavill). But her idealistic existence is shattered when her mother disappears one day, leading Enola to embark on her own quest to solve the mystery and find her mother, over the objections of traditionalist elder brother Mycroft (Sam Claflin). On the journey Enola will discover that there was much her mother was preparing her for, but some things she wasn’t able to: not least the charming noble runaway Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge) the threat on whose life Enola also finds herself trying to solve.
Well, I am happy to say that Enola Holmes is a rip-roaring triumph, at once a unique ode to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s crime-solving vision, and a stunning effort to introduce modern feminist themes to the entire idea. This is proper Holmesian fiction, whatever the first name of the main Holmes character, and I loved nearly every minute of it. And right at the heart of it is that lead performance.
I might have said it a few times about different people over the years, but it is worth bringing the old descriptor out of retirement: Millie Bobby Brown has the potential to be huge. Not since, perhaps, a younger Saoirse Ronan have I seen a female actress of this age demonstrate the skill to this level. Brown jumps into the role of Enola Holmes and makes it her own from minute one, with a delightful scatter-brained monologue ruminating on the meaning behind the backwards spelling of her name, and carries it all the way to the triumphant tone of her closing narration. She was apparently a driving force behind bringing this book to studio heads’ attention (she and her older sister are producers), so it’s clear she’s into the idea.
Shakespeare-like, she breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience like we are her imaginary friend along for the adventure, with a deviousness in her eye that like something out of Richard III. She brings effervescent joy at moments, the pits of despair at others. She can pull off a good fight scene, she can play the bashful teenage girl caught up in an unexpected quasi-romance, and she can sell us on the idea that she is a young woman with all of the same gifts as Sherlock Holmes, with just the needed polish missing. Brown really could become one of the A-Listers of the industry, if she was so inclined.
And around her is a really brilliant supporting cast. Cavill makes the most of his few scenes as the famous detective, letting out a little bit of emotion that sometimes is alien to the character, but is fitting here, coaxed into existence by the impact of his sister. Claflin gives a nice villainous spin to Mycroft, as a very out-of-touch arch-conservative, whose battering of his sisters place in the world reaches truly monstrous proportions late on (a scene where he takes money from Enola is truly revolting as an example of misogynistic control of women). In this Enola Holmes becomes a great examination of a dysfunctional family, with Mycroft – the most traditionally successful, but least gifted of his siblings – holding a very obvious grudge with his mother. Bonham Carter could have done with more time, but is fine as Eudoria, Frances de la Tour is able to steal a few scenes as an elderly matron, Susie Wokoma gives the cast some needed diversity as a jujitsu teacher and Burn Gorman is suitably threatening as the hired assassin out to ruin Enola’s plan. But it is Louis Partridge who is the best of the rest really: an utterly charming young man who proves a great foil/assistant to Enola, one half of one of the best executed teenage romances I have seen on-screen.
Bradbeer and writer Jack Thorne have given Brown and the others plenty to work with, in hand with their performances. In Enola Holmes there is the central mystery – where oh where has the Holmes matriarch gone? – the secondary mystery – why does someone want the charming young Viscount dead? – and then the main point of the exercise: Women can do this detective thing to, and a lot of other things as well. The puzzles of Eudoria Homes and the Viscount Tewkesbury are both great independent of each other, allowing the space for investigations, elaboration and a suitably engaging culmination, wherein both becomes intertwined with the other. Deductive reasoning in the Holmes fashion is something that has been played out in lots of different ways on-screen, but in Enola Homes it is as engaging as ever, in every code deciphered, in every chemical composition identified, in every aside direct to the audience and in every overheard conversation in the past that becomes very relevant to the future. It’s a family film, an adaptation of a young adult novel, but it never dares to talk down to or underestimate the audience.
More importantly feminist depth is found throughout Enola Holmes. It’s more than just the fact that the main character is a young woman trying to make it in a man’s world. It’s in Eudoria Holmes’ ties to some manner of militant suffragette movement (an under-filmed movement; it seems like a long time since the not-so-great Suffragette); it’s in Wokoma’s private school to teach women how to defend themselves; it’s in every scene where a woman stands up and shows herself more than just the preconceived notions of her sex, and those are many, up to and including absolutely brutal fight scenes; it’s even in the stepping stone of vital electoral reform, the chance for which forms a critical backbone of the whole experience.
At times it can become a little over-the-top – some of Wokomo’s lines around the middle of the second act cross the line between commentary and audience-targetted lecture – but there is no getting beyond the theme. “The future is up to us” is the film’s rallying cry, uttered repeatedly by different female characters: Enola’s entire journey, from her past training with her forward-minded mother to her final triumph over the boorish Mycroft, encapsulates that phrase, in her physical strength, in her moral choice to be a protector of others and in her ability to stand apart and succeed doing it. In this Victorian world, time’s up. This makes Enola Holmes critically engaging alongside being vastly entertaining.
Bradbeer, with Giles Nuttgens beside him, directs a beautiful film (a big improvement for Nuttgens here, whose work at last took in in the uninspiring The Fundamentals Of Caring). It’s easy, and perhaps natural, for Holmes films to veer towards the dark, the grungy, the smoky, what with the Victorian setting, but Bradbeer goes the other way: this late 19th century London might be sooty, but it still has sparks of colour and richness that draw the eye in every scene. The English countryside is a gorgeous verdant green in scenes set there, and this beauty is actually tied into the plot rather critically, in a manner I found rather smart. Crucial scenes see skips in time in terms of flashbacks to Enola learning under her mother, and while other directors and writers might end up with a jumble because of this, Bradbeer and Thorne craft something appealing, that seems properly kinetic and teenage-esque frantic, as opposed to confusing. Costumes and cast presentation is top-notch, and Enola Holmes is careful to give weight to the idea that a persons clothes are potentially as much an unorthodox weapon as they are a statement of fashion.
The score, from Daniel Pemberton, is also a delight. I find it rarer and rarer that I actually enjoy the scores of films these days, or at least find them worth giving special consideration. Pemberton, a man who hasn’t quite flown under the radar to this point but is still perhaps looking of a seat at the top table of composers, crafts a bouncy, energetic score for Enola Holmes. The whimsy coming off of it is almost palpable, matching much of the narrative’s helter-skelter presentation: you could almost imagine an early-era Beatles tune being set to some of it. Even in action-heavy moments that sense remains: one fight scene has what almost sounds like a washboard-esque backing to it, with an additional synth layer, and in another the screeching of violins is melded expertly into a train whistle, in an effect I can only describe as hauntingly memorable, and immensely clever. It reminded very much of the sort of score you might find in a Wes Anderson film with the airy, almost unreal nature of it, and it certainly left an impression.
Enola Holmes is, well, bloody brilliant. It could so easily have been a forgettable young adult adaptation, made on the cheap and saccharine to a fault. Instead, it exhibits an intelligence and a creativity that I was honestly not entirely expecting, leaning in hard to its premise and the potential that it has. It gives us a new film icon of feminism in the title character, whose actor is giving the performance of her young career. The supporting cast is fantastic, the film looks amazing, and it skillfully weaves together the varying strands of twin mystery, feminist narrative and an unexpectedly decent romantic plot. Enola Holmes slots easily into the expanded Holmes canon, and is hopefully the first of more to come from this franchise. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).