When Enola Holmes – Sherlock’s teenage sister – discovers her mother missing, she sets off to find her, becoming a super-sleuth in her own right as she outwits her famous brother and unravels a dangerous conspiracy around a mysterious young lord.
Fireworks, bomb caches, ladies’ karate lessons; the underbelly of Victorian London discovered by teenage runaway Enola Holmes is fizzing in ways quite different to what she was expecting.
Enola Holmes is set in England in 1884, with the country split between progress and stagnation – as The Third Reform Act, which aims to extend voting rights, struggles to make its way through the House of Lords. But if that sounds interminable, fear not, for this star-studded romp through Victorian London is a boisterous and clever delight, with an energetic and effervescent performance from Millie Bobby Brown as Enola.
Mums watching it with their children may find they are recipients of accusing glances from their offspring though, as Enola’s own mother’s secret life is partially laid bare to her shocked daughter.
It’s part of growing up, realising your mum is a person in her own right and not simply there to help you to become one, though Eudoria Holmes (Helena Bonham Carter) has a more intriguing double life than most. “Eudoria’s been hiding all her life. If she wants to stay hidden she will,” karate instructor and teashop owner Edith (Susan Wokoma) tells Enola.
Harry Bradbeer’s film, based on Nancy Springer’s young adult series of novels, manages to be both jolly good fun and encouragingly in-depth when it comes to feminism and suffrage, as the heroine throws herself into a high stakes game looking for two missing people.
In a ramshackle house in the English countryside, Enola Holmes (Brown), younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft, wakes on her 16th birthday to discover her mother has vanished, leaving some small gifts but no address.
Her brothers return home to deal with her. Stuffed shirt Mycroft (Sam Clafin), eldest son and hence her guardian, resolves to send her off to a finishing school for young ladies run by Miss Harrington (Fiona Shaw). Sherlock (Henry Cavill) is a little more sympathetic, but neither really care for their young sister or the way their mother brought her up (think sword fighting in the drawing room and feminist literature in the library, rather than corset-tightening and small talk).
Enola escapes to London dressed as a boy, coming across the missing teenage Lord Tewksbury, Marquis of Basilwether (Louis Partridge) hiding on the same train. Helping him escape Linthorn (Burn Gorman) the ultra-violent investigator on his tail, Enola eventually reaches London where she sets about solving two mysteries: the whereabouts of her mother, and who is pursuing Tewksbury and why.
They’re linked tangentially, though while one is pleasingly tied up by the end the other has a less cosy conclusion.
At two hours there is never a dull moment. The story, and Enola, career along at breakneck speed, pausing only for witty animated Victorian intertital cards, and to break the fourth wall: Enola is frequently introducing flashbacks to her childhood, explaining her actions and gurning adorably.
Many of the flashbacks detail the extensive training her mother gave her while she was growing up; by 16 Enola is well-read, a quick thinker, an energetic fighter and an expert code-breaker.
The fight scenes are never too dark but they’re certainly full-on, and long. There was at least one point where I remained convinced she would survive only because I knew we were just an hour in, and that there are several more books requiring adaptation.
While Enola spends an awful lot of time talking to her audience, her straightforward explanations are a welcome relief after, well, TENET; and there’s no talking down to the audience, many of whom will be tweens and young teens. The plot is clever without being too clever, with deliberately laid trails of misinformation.
But hidden among the word games, codes and secret messages Enola uses to track down her mum, Eudora’s real message is that Enola be herself, find her own freedom, and not let others distract her into shouldering their burdens. It’s an excellent message to young girls who even now are constantly told to be kind even if it means putting themselves last.
Clafin is enjoyably awful as contemptuous cold fish Mycroft, moaning about the kinds of people likely to be given the vote under the new law while in nearby corner of the gentlemen’s club a rich old duffer snores loudly. He also gets some great, if grating, lines: his mother was apparently “too old to remarry”.
And his brother? Well just as I have a favourite Doctor I also have a favourite Sherlock Holmes and mine is Basil Rathbone. Still, he gets a run for his money from the impossibly handsome Henry Cavill, a man whose appeal I couldn’t fathom until Enola Holmes. Cavillistas, I finally understand you now.
Sherlock’s growing appreciation of his sister’s very different talents as an investigator – he is forensic in his attention to detail, she is bold, reckless and a keen mistress of disguise – is rather touching, particularly when she beats him. And in a call to 2020, Enola accuses him of ignoring the need for social change because it doesn’t affect him, while thinking this makes him better than Mycroft, who actively fights against it.
There’s entertaining support from Adeel Akhtar as Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, and pleasingly the young marquis also turns out not to be as dim and needy as Enola first thought. He’s a Liberal, while his dowager grandmother talks of the guardianship required when one inherits enormous slabs of England; their family sums up progression vs preservation. Though despite his forward thinking and enterprising methods of escape, he is still rather overshadowed by the glorious, scene-stealing dowager, played by Frances De La Tour in enough black taffeta to clothe Queen Victoria through her entire 40 years of mourning.
Enola Holmes launches on Netflix on 23 September 2020.
Read my (very spoilery) article Investigating Enola Holmes: The Case Of The Overthinking Critic
Watch the trailer now: