Very spoilery. If you’re not interested in what I got up to with a magnifying glass and a pipe, scroll down for the big plot reveals which are in bold. (My review is here.)
The big message to Enola Holmes‘ audience is be yourself, but be prepared.
It’s a terrifically fun adventure, perfect for a teen and tween audience, with a heroine who isn’t just relying on instinct but training. Best of all, Enola constantly uses the expectations of society, and of her un-empathic family who are searching for her, to stay one step ahead. It’s very feminist – solidly so rather than feminism-lite.
Her mother Eudora instills in Enola that “our future is up to us”. Then, rather than offer up the kind of vaguely feminist platitudes that would nowadays be printed on a £50 celebrity-endorsed cushion or written in italics on an influencer’s Instagram story, Eudora ensures Enola is exceedingly well-prepared. She knows it’s the only way for women to succeed. She’s an activist, spending years training Enola in sports, fighting, literature and word games, and is no stranger to direct action on the streets.
The film has complex female characters with good and bad motivations, and dilemmas about direct action. Even karate teacher and tea shop owner Edith, while we don’t see much of her, carries with her what must surely be a fascinating backstory.
The film shines a light on the precarious situations many women and children found themselves in, thanks to society’s expectations, and the law. Primogeniture (the estate being passed down intact to the eldest son) features loudly. Since the death of Eudora’s husband when Enola was small, the entire estate has been owned by Mycroft Holmes, the eldest son. Eudora has been “allowed” to live in the big house until Enola is 16.
Mycroft can send Enola away to boarding school (Miss Harrison’s Finishing School for Young Ladies) because she’s his ward, and he owns the lot. (I did laugh – through gritted teeth – when Mycroft said of his own mother that she was “too old to remarry!”).
Eudora’s disappearance occurs just as a key Act of Parliament is struggling to be passed, an Act that will extend suffrage (voting rights) – though not, yet, to women. Change is happening, but too fast for the reactionaries and too slowly for the progressives.
Her vanishing act is linked to that of the teenage Lord Tewkesbury though only because of the changes in society at the time. She has long ago realised women need to organise for themselves while he, with a seat in the House of Lords, is part of a system that edges forward only slowly.
Eudora’s understanding of the position of women drives her love of codes and word games. Codes mean privacy, something Eudora cherishes. “Mother believed privacy was the highest virtue. And the one most frequently violated,” says Enola to camera early in the film.
Enola is up front about the code in her name, which, as she points out from the off, is Alone backwards. Though by the end of the film she knows that she’s not destined to be alone unless she wants to – there are plenty of people like her out there who she can search for.
There are so many codes (words, flower pictures and meanings, even a fake coded message planted in the newspaper by her brother, which Enola identifies as such instantly), I started to find ones that quite possibly didn’t actually mean anything. When Enola dresses up as a widow to find out what Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard is doing at Lord Tewksbury’s palatial family seat, she names herself May Beatrice Posy – considering her love of words and word games I wondered if this was another code: May Bea [Maybe] Posy. (Alternatively see this article’s title.)
Coded into society are how we all look and behave. Enola manages to stay under the radar by using society’s expectations of women and girls, and the expectations of her own family, against them. She frequently offers boys money to swap clothes with her so she can travel in disguise. She also confounds people who are looking for her by dressing like a society lady – they’re searching for a carefree teen in a bicycle, not a young woman in an unbreathable corset and a silk frock with more layers than an onion.
But what of the young Lord Tewksbury, Viscount Basilwether? Who is trying to kill him and why? In a film about complex women, it turns out that the person who sends the killer Linthorn after him is…
HIS OWN GRANDMOTHER. It was the Dowager Duchess, who has arranged for the murder of her own grandson (and quite possibly her son, his father, who died years before).
Yes – she who walked the tree-lined avenue with Enola explaining that she is conserving the land for future generations (of their own family, obviously).
As a Liberal planning to vote in the House of Lords in favour of the bill, Lord Tewksbury is seen by her as a threat to her way of life. The end of the film sees the Bill passing by one vote, meaning Tewksbury was vital to its success.
Re the real-life Act itself: The Representation of the People Act 1884, the Act of Parliament at the centre of the Enola Holmes mystery, didn’t expand women’s suffrage though it did extend suffrage to more men, and iron out some inequalities in voting rights between men in the boroughs and in the countryside (you can read more about it here).
It was another step forward on the path heading towards universal suffrage though; women over 30 got the vote in 1918. (And I’m going to veer slightly but not entirely off-topic now. Some women could vote considerably earlier than this. Single female ratepayers could vote in municipal elections from 1869. A few women could also vote in parliamentary elections before 1832 because it was based on property ownership. Astonishingly the Great Reform Act of 1832 actually removed these rights.)
After the vote, Mycroft and Sherlock go for a drink – always brothers, though Sherlock is delighted at the result and Mycroft furious (they also agree that going forward Enola will be Sherlock’s ward). Enola has once more paid a boy to borrow his clothes, this time the paper boy, so it is she who sells Sherlock a copy of the newspaper.
The men in Enola Holmes are the pillars of society around whom Enola, Eudora and Edith fizzle and fight.
That’s not to say they don’t change, or are entirely one-dimensional. Apart from Mycroft, who is entirely stuck in his ways, the men do do develop a little. But both Holmes brothers are finding society is galloping ahead of them. Mycroft may be the most reactionary but Sherlock has also been caught napping: “You see the world so closely but do you see how it’s changing?” Edith asks him.
Sherlock finally realises his sister is a skilled investigator, even though she operates entirely differently to him (and when he goes to Lestrade and explains the inspector should arrest the dowager and why, he’s surprised but pleased when he’s informed his sister got there first).
Lord Tewksbury turns out to be less arrogant than he first appears, knowledgable about the natural world and skilled at foraging.
But what of Eudora? Is she reunited with Enola? Why yes she is. but…
Back at Enola’s new and much improved lodgings, she discovers her mother waiting for her. It’s a loving if slightly awkward meeting, and doesn’t end with her mum coming home.
Instead Eudora is going back to continue her work. She explains to her daughter that it wouldn’t have been safe to tell Enola where she was. She left home for Enola, to help build a better world for her; and she knows Enola can survive and indeed thrive without her.
Enola Holmes is clever, riotous and funny, as Enola fights her way through society, its high echelons and its underbelly. Empowering without being either frivolous or ponderous, the film’s solid messages about how to secure your own future and be yourself in a society that still pushes narrow confines of what that might be, is just as needed now as when the film is set.
It’s also frank about the difficult transitions from child to adult. Enola quickly works out that the fake message in the newspaper small ads is not from her mother at all, but she still yearns for her: “and yet facts don’t distract from hope.”
For Enola, it turns out not to be about physically finding her mother but about finding herself, and finding where she and Eudora fit in the world.
But wait, there’s still one more twist to the saga. The estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote the Sherlock Holmes novels, sued Netflix and others, claiming copyright infringement – and it came about because of the warmer, more humane characterisation of Sherlock in the film. Apparently although stories about Sherlock Holmes written before 1923 are out of copyright, those stories written afterwards are in copyright – and only those stories written between 1923 and 1927 portray Holmes as having emotions. Check out this article in the Hollywood Reporter about the case, from June.
Enola Holmes is streaming on Netflix now.
Read my review here or check out the character posters below.