Enola Holmes debuts exclusively on Netflix on Sept. 23.
The early buzz on Enola Holmes is that it’s a giddy blend of Fleabag and Sherlock Holmes for the YA set. Don’t believe the hype. This tween-friendly detective story is charming, yet never achieves anything so daring.
Based on Nancy Springer’s novel The Case of the Missing Marquess, Enola Holmes centers on the lesser-known little sister of the great detective, Sherlock (Henry Cavill). While he and his crafty older brother Mycroft (Sam Claflin) were off in London being big men of mysteries and governance, Enola (Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown) was raised as a “wild child” in the English countryside by their eccentric mother (Helena Bonham Carter). There, she was taught Shakespeare, philosophy, tennis, archery, and jujitsu. (Most of which will have no bearing on the plot ahead.) That is until her sixteenth birthday when her mother vanishes.
Her brothers turn up not to comfort Enola, but to deal with her. Sherlock muses about their mother’s departure but without urgency or concern. Mycroft enrolls Enola at a boarding school to turn her into a docile debutante they can easily marry off. Well, Enola wants none of that. Following the clues their clever mother left behind, she runs away to solve the mystery of the missing Mrs. Holmes. However, Enola’s quest is derailed when she crosses paths with a young aristocrat (Louis Partridge) on the run for mysterious reasons. Naturally, opposites attract, cases collide, and much hijinks ensue that have major repercussions.
You might well wonder, reading the above, what comparison can be made to Fleabag? Well, Enola Holmes is helmed by Emmy-winning Fleabag director Harry Bradbeer. The rest is superficial. Both productions center on an Englishwoman who is the black sheep of her family because of her free-spirited nature. Both feature that woman delivering direct-address asides to her at-home audience, treating us as trusted friends. And both have the good fortune to include the remarkable English actress Fiona Shaw in their casts (though in crushingly small roles.) These similarities suggest Enola’s story will be one of a devil-may-care rebel with an irreverent wit and some truly questionable choices. Not quite.
Fleabag dared to follow an anti-heroine who was wildly charismatic, but also petty, reckless, impulsive, and selfish. Creator/star Phoebe Waller-Bridge showed us a version of womanhood that was messy and mesmerizing, funny, and unapologetically f*cked up. Brown, who also produces Enola Holmes, offers no such complexities here, even though the journey of becoming a woman is incredibly messy. Aside from fumbled flirtations with the posh pretty-boy, Enola is all flash, no flaws. She is plucky and rebellious in ways that sure would be shocking in 1900 but are stodgy tropes of “girl power” narratives now. She wears pants! She likes science! She defies the cranky old men who tell her no! Enola is defined chiefly by her charm and totally reasonable rebellions.
As to its politics, the script by Jack Thorne gives a lot of lip service to girl power. (Mycroft even says “feminism” once.) But the actual exploration of the concept is cringingly juvenile. Though the suffragette movement simmers in the background of her story, Enola’s only interest in female empowerment is getting her own way. There’s little exploration of how the patriarchal society would limit her options beyond her brothers’ demands. Plus, there’s something sinister about how she ultimately proves herself. It’s not enough that Enola shows she can survive on her own. She also has to outwit her brothers (geniuses about twice her age) and repeatedly battle back a violent man (almost twice her size). To get a modicum of the respect her brothers enjoy, she must become a Super Woman. That isn’t as empowering as this film seems to think.
Manhandled politics aside, Enola Holmes offers plenty of whiz-bang in its mystery. There is a daring getaway from a screaming locomotive, a spattering of martial arts battles, a frenzied gunfight, and an explosive encounter cribbed from some lesser-known history. In these moments, Enola Holmes becomes exciting, as its smugly twee tone is cast aside for shadows, dramatic stings of the score, and hand-to-hand combat that is confidently captured. Grounded by drama, Brown seems more in her Stranger Things element in these sequences. Her alert eyes spark tension. In the direct address bits, she’s blithely enchanting as she welcomes us into Enola’s confidence. But where Fleabag treated such direct addresses with a smirking attitude, young Enola’s is an “aw shucks” tone better suited to Disney Channel TV movies. It’s cute, but lacking in depth. Frankly, that goes for the movie as a whole.
As for Henry Cavill, he offers a fascinating, fresh spin on Sherlock with swagger and charm. He and Brown share crackling chemistry that effectively sells them as like-minded siblings with an appetite for adventure. And this strapping Sherlock is a delightful shake-up from the sternness Cavill has shown in DCEU and The Witcher. I just wish he had more to do. Enola Holmes kicks him to the sidelines, making him a smirking mentor (think Tony Stark in Spider-Man: Homecoming) who infrequently pops up for guidance and a cheeky wink. Still, there are hints that a sequel could up his involvement. Here’s hoping.
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