If all you knew Millie Bobby Brown from was her star-making turn as the psychokinetic Eleven in Stranger Things, prepare to be surprised by her next star-making turn in Enola Holmes. Enola is take-charge where Eleven can be hesitant; she is verbose where Eleven can be laconic. Brown is developing a steely core as an actress, a certain self-possessed quality that also served her well in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and watching her adapt that in Enola Holmes for a role that actually allows her to have fun is a delight.
Directed by Harry Bradbeer (who has directed most of Fleabag’s two seasons) and adapted by screenwriter Jack Thorne (who actually delivers a script here that I don’t entirely loathe, after the frustrating letdowns of His Dark Materials, The Aeronauts, The Secret Garden, and Radioactive) from The Enola Holmes Mysteries YA novels by Nancy Springer, Enola Holmes combines a few different stories from that series. Certain details are switched around—the year is 1900, not 1888; Enola is aged up from 14 to 16; and her mother Eudoria’s (Helena Bonham Carter) motivations are altered to be more proactive than reactive—but the general gist is the same. Enola is a young woman mostly ignored by her older brothers, the aristocratically minded Mycroft (Sam Claflin, bringing back his sneer from The Nightingale) and the increasingly infamous Sherlock (Henry Cavill, dashing), but she needs their help when Eudoria disappears.
Of course, anyone would be concerned by their mother’s sudden absence. But Enola is particularly hurt because, for the majority of her 16 years, her mother has been her only companion, her primary teacher, and her best friend. In fourth-wall-breaking narration often delivered directly into the camera, Enola recounts how their days are filled with “reading, science, sports, all sorts of exercise, both physical and mental”—which translates into playing tennis indoors, bare-knuckle boxing and archery on the grounds of Ferndell Hall, and playing word games with movable tiles, a la Scrabble. Enola treats the fact that her name spelled backward is “alone” almost superstitiously, but even after her father’s death and Mycroft and Sherlock’s moving out of the family home, Eudoria was always there. Why would she leave Enola?
Neither Mycroft nor Sherlock has answers, either—but elder Mycroft is enraged by the situation Eudoria has left him to handle. (Upon finding a book about patriarchal oppression in his mother’s bedroom, Mycroft’s “Oh my god, feminism! Perhaps she was mad, or senile,” tells you everything you need to know about his awfulness.) Now that Enola is his ward, he decides to send his “complete failure” of a younger sister to Miss Harrison’s Finishing School for Young Ladies, run by the tyrannical Miss Harrison (Fiona Shaw), who slaps Enola in the face during their first meeting. “We need to break her and build her up,” Mycroft insists, taking Enola’s education upon himself and leaving Sherlock to solve the mystery of their mother’s disappearance. Enola, though, has intentions of her own. After finding secret messages left for her by Eudoria, Enola runs away, hopping a train to London with the hopes of abandoning her brothers, finding her mother, and starting a new life.
Enola Holmes starts out with an interest in what happened to Eudoria and then shifts into another subplot in which Enola crosses paths with an on-the-run young lord (Louis Partridge), who is being hunted by an assassin. The connection between the two mysteries is eventually revealed, and the film primarily relies on Enola to do so; Brown tackles the protagonist responsibility with energy and enthusiasm. Yes, the film has the girl-power energy of a film like Charlie’s Angels, but Brown does well by playing Enola without any sarcastic guile. She is open, earnest, and quick-thinking without being precocious; you’ll sympathize with her frustrated tears in response to Mycroft’s cruelty and cheer her on during a tête-à-tête with Sherlock. Brown has solid chemistry with everyone, from the very likeable Cavill, who really thrives in genre work like this; to Carter, who is customarily but still appreciatively rebellious; to Partridge, whose marquess Enola initially hates and then, you know. Brown also exhibits good physicality here, although Enola’s training in boxing and jujitsu brings to mind how Guy Ritchie made his Sherlock edgier in the same way.
In fact, it’s the Ritchie adjacent stuff, and the excessively stylish flourishes, that give Enola Holmes a rocky start. The first third or so of the film relies on tongue-in-cheek animated sequences to guide us through the story, with Enola’s handwriting announcing various “phases” of the film and moving snapshots, a la those in the Harry Potter universe, adding unnecessary plot visualization (examples: when Enola mentions her father’s death, his figure drops out of a family portrait and is replaced by a gravestone and giant cross; when she comes across a building full of gunpowder, we see a picturebook-style sketching of the location explode in animated form). It is important to note here that Enola Holmes is very intentionally written for a tween to young teen audience, and the film does well with certain elements of that—for example, Enola’s question asking of viewers, stuff like “I would say this is going quite well, wouldn’t you?”, is a little grating but ultimately harmless.
But when the film fully loses those cutesy accoutrement is when it shows real confidence in its storytelling. The film’s sincere trust of its protagonist is refreshing, and helps gloss over some more nonsensical elements. (The entire subplot involving Eudoria, why she leaves home, and how her children feel about her actions feels half-considered, like so many of Thorne’s attempts at writing female characters.) It’s easy to take those missteps in stride when Brown’s lovely and spunky work as a “lady detective” (shout out to Miss Phryne Fisher!) is so strong, and she carries the surprisingly enjoyable Enola Holmes.
Enola Holmes is streaming worldwide on Netflix starting Sept. 23, 2020.
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