Movie Curiosities: Enola Holmes
It’s surprisingly easy to forget that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t really give a shit about Sherlock Holmes. The man was a medical doctor and a prolific author in the fields of science, history, and politics. During his lifetime, Doyle himself and contemporary critics thought that his historical novels were his greatest works. Perhaps most notably, Conan Doyle wrote a short work in defense of Britain’s military involvement in South Africa during the Second Boer War — and that’s the most likely reason why he was knighted!
I don’t know if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever intended for Sherlock Holmes to be his most enduring and popular legacy, but that’s certainly what he fell into. He wrote “A Study in Scarlet”, and Holmes turned out to be so impossibly lucrative that he pretty much had to keep on writing for the character. Even when Conan Doyle tried killing off Sherlock and ridding himself of the character for good, he had to bring the character back a few years later to keep himself from going broke.
Reading through the original Sherlock Holmes adventures, it’s perfectly obvious that they were thrown together without any regard for continuity. Moreover, Holmes is conveniently and preternaturally talented at fighting, disguises, swordplay, marksmanship, handwriting analysis, and literally any other skill he ever needed in the moment. Aside from his cold and calculating demeanor, tempered by his firm devotion to justice, there’s not much about his personality that’s especially consistent or noteworthy. Holmes doesn’t really develop as a character because he’s presented as perfect from start to finish — a Victorian-era Gary Stu, if you will.
So what happens when we gender-flip the concept, making our lead sleuth into a teenage girl, but with personality and character development?
Enola Holmes tells the story of the oft-forgotten teenage little sister to Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes. The film is adapted from the first in a short series of YA novels written by Nancy Springer. The adaptation itself was handled by… *sigh* screenwriter Jack Thorne and director Harry Bradbeer. A female-driven movie written and directed by two straight men.
Okay, let’s get this over with. What have we got?
Enola helpfully gets us up to speed by breaking the fourth wall, repeatedly talking into the camera throughout the entire picture. Though the device does get annoying at times, it actually kind of works here. It helps the audience to feel like we’re a conspirator in whatever shenanigans our main character is cooking up (see also: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and it also forms an intimate connection with the audience in a way common to children’s television (see also: “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, “Dora the Explorer”, “Clarissa Explains it All”, “Blue’s Clues”, etc. etc. etc.).
It’s a playful and subversive device that works well for a film geared toward young adults. Moreover, this is an original character in a world that’s universally known and beloved — we need a reason to follow Enola Holmes when we could be spending a movie with Sherlock instead, which in turn means that we need to get invested in Enola right off the jump. Surprisingly, the fourth-wall breaks — powered by a dynamic and effortlessly charismatic performance from Millie Bobby Brown (also a producer here) — get the job done.
Anyway, Enola was born shortly before her father’s passing, and both of her brothers had long since grown up and settled into their accomplished careers in London. Thus Enola and her mother (Eudoria Holmes, played with aplomb by Helena Bonham-Carter) are left to their own devices in their massive country home. For the first sixteen years of Enola’s life, Eudoria taught her about pretty much everything under the sun, except that she never got to see the outside world.
Cut to Enola’s sixteenth birthday, and her mom suddenly vanishes without a trace. Naturally, Enola calls in her brothers (with Sam Claflin stepping in as Mycroft and Henry Cavill as Sherlock himself) to ask for assistance. Instead, Mycroft arranges for Enola to be sent to a boarding school while Sherlock busies himself looking for the matriarch.
Thus Enola runs away to look for her mother on her own. By happenstance, she runs headlong into the errant Viscount of Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), a teenage boy facing multiple attempts on his life just before he’s set to inherit his late father’s title. Hilarity ensues.
To start with, the cast is a mixed bag. Millie Bobby Brown anchors the film superbly, appropriately tough and/or vulnerable where she needs to be. It certainly helps that this is an exceptionally showy role by nature, with numerous costume changes, multiple action scenes, and countless chances to literally mug for the camera. There’s a lot here for an actor to sink her teeth into, and Brown makes a meal of it. On a similar note, Helena Bonham-Carter gets an awful lot to do for someone who appears primarily in flashbacks, and she utterly nails the line between tough and crazy.
Then we have Henry Cavill, the latest in a long and illustrious line of actors to play the legendary Sherlock Holmes. I don’t know if I’m in the minority on this (I sincerely can’t wait to hear from the Holmesian scholars on this one), but I honestly really liked this portrayal of the character. Yes, Cavill is considerably younger than the role is typically cast, but it makes sense to me that such a larger-than-life figure built from the ground up to be innately smarter and better than everyone else should be played by freaking Superman. I could totally see this portrayal of the character in my head while reading the original Conan Doyle stories.
Granted, this particular Sherlock is a doting older brother to a rebellious teenage daughter he barely knows, and he’s a middle child trying to serve as mediator between two wildly different siblings. The character wasn’t built for any of this… and yet that’s part of what makes this particular iteration so compelling. By his very nature, Sherlock Holmes is used to having all the answers and being emotionally detached. With that in mind, this whole family drama has put Sherlock so far removed from his comfort zone that it’s a rare time when he doesn’t really know what to say or do, and that makes for some fascinating internal conflict.
(Side note: In case you missed it, the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle filed suit against the filmmakers a few months ago. Yes, though most of the Sherlock Holmes canon is in the public domain, the last ten stories — and all the elements original to them — are not. The lawsuit complains that the character of Sherlock Holmes “became warmer,” with these last ten stories, and so this counts as copyright infringement.
(Put another way, Sherlock Holmes was a man void of any emotion or personality until the closing chapters of his canon. That’s coming directly from the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, and you can take that straight to the motherfucking bank.)
By contrast, Sam Claflin’s take on Mycroft is wrong, wrong, dead wrong. Yes, it’s well established that Mycroft of the original text is an employee for the British government — in fact, according to Sherlock himself, “occasionally he is the British government.” (To be clear, that’s Sherlock of the original text, not the movie.) So to a degree, it makes sense that Mycroft Holmes should be the movie’s voice for the patriarchy and the status quo. But the devil’s in the details.
Shortly before Mycroft’s grand debut (in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”), Sherlock says of his brother “he has no ambition and no energy. He will not even go out of his way to verify his own solutions, and would rather be considered wrong than take the trouble to prove himself right.” In the same exchange, Sherlock states clearly and emphatically that Mycroft is even smarter and more skilled at observation than he is (to repeat, we’re talking about a man more perceptive and intelligent than Sherlock Fucking Holmes), but he only uses these talents for parlor tricks because he can’t be arsed.
By comparison, Claflin’s Mycroft never even shows a tenth of the potential to match his younger siblings for ingenuity or deduction. Moreover, this Mycroft is a puffed-up blowhard who goes to great lengths in getting Enola to a boarding school so she can be a proper English lady and not an embarrassment to the family’s image. And this is the same guy described by his own brother as a man with “no ambition and no energy”? Fuck outta here.
Elsewhere, Louis Partridge plays a serviceable yet forgettable love interest for our lead. Burn Gorman may be a wonderful character actor, but he was sadly miscast as the heavy. It’s strange seeing Lestrade played by an actor of color, but Adeel Akhtar did a fine job playing a pompous comic relief. Fiona Shaw — yes, the erstwhile Petunia Dursley herself — is of course a wonderful hate sink in the role of our boarding school headmistress.
But the undisputed champion of the supporting cast has got to be Susan Wokoma, in a brief yet showstopping performance as one of Enola’s former teachers. This character is a bona fide badass, speaking a lot of harsh truths, holding her own against Enola and Sherlock Holmes without flinching. Even more than the Holmes siblings and their mother, I’d argue that Edith is the true moral voice of the picture. Which brings me to this movie’s politics.
Front and center, this is a staunch feminist movie. On the macro level, this film is set against the women’s suffrage movement. Women’s independence and their right to vote are the stakes at play in this plot. All of the characters are unrelentingly vocal in their positions on the topic, and all of the various stances are presented without ever talking down to the young audience. Moreover, this movie had the good fortune to come out during an ongoing national conversation about when or whether property damage is justifiable in effecting social change. The story thread goes unresolved, alas, but it still gives the plot some good heft.
On a more personal level, this is a story about a young woman who wants to assert her individuality in open defiance of oppressive gender norms. Boilerplate stuff, but this movie is smart enough to shake things up a bit. To start with, as much as Enola hates the ridiculous and useless garments that women are expected to wear, the fact remains that she has to dress like everyone else because she’s on the run and trying to blend in. So she has to find a way to make it work for her. Even better, as much as Enola hates the boarding school, Sherlock himself points out that it’s an education nonetheless, and she could very well pick up on practical knowledge and skills she couldn’t get anywhere else.
And let’s not forget: Enola’s mother left her, without any explanation. It’s entirely possible that if she keeps searching — and if she survives the attempt — she might not like the reason why.
Let’s wrap up with some of the major drawbacks. To start with, the action is subpar. I was terribly unimpressed with the choreography and the editing, and the dodgy CGI certainly didn’t help. What makes it even more confusing is that the fight scenes kept getting intercut with flashbacks to Enola’s fight training with her mother. It’s like the filmmakers had no idea how to properly stage or choreograph a fight scene (or maybe the actors and stunt performers didn’t have enough time to train) so they could only shoot one move at a time and stitch it all together in post.
Easily the worst offender is the climax. To be perfectly blunt, everything about the climax is godawful. It takes place at night, and the camerawork is so inept that everything is too dark to see and it looks like shit. The big reveal was telegraphed an hour in advance. The action is pathetic, there’s a character saved from death for no adequately explained reason, it’s all just bad. Bad to the point of unwatchable.
And yet, even as wretched as the climax is, I still can’t call it a dealbreaker. I honestly had a great time with Enola Holmes. It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, it’s stylish, and the core trio of Brown, Bonham-Carter, and Cavill are more than enough to lift up the rest of the uneven cast. Even if the central mystery itself was pretty weak on the whole, there are still enough twists and turns to keep the plot compelling. Of course, the timely presentation of feminist themes is a huge help (though I’d still much rather see a female filmmaker handle the subject matter).
It’s a charming and fun little romp, fit for all ages. Definitely check this one out.
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