[The sad recent demise of editor Marvin Kaye means also the end of the magazine he edited, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine – which had quite a backlog of my film review in hand. I’m sharing those columns here.]
The novelist Nancy Springer wrote a series of Enola Holmes Mysteries for ‘young adult readers’ – starting with The Case of the Missing Marquess (2006) – and Netflix had the bright idea of adapting them into their very own Sherlock-adjacent mini-franchise. Last-ditch legal action on the part of the Conan Doyle Estate, which clings to copyright in some territories on a handful of late Doyle stories, threatened to make following up this introductory feature more trouble than it’s worth – but a sequel has been announced. It’s a lively enough piece of family-friendly adventure – smartly scripted by Jack Thorne, directed at a bit of a plod by Harry Bradbeer – with an appealing lead performance from Millie Bobby Brown as the hitherto-unmentioned younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes … who shouldn’t be confused with the hitherto-unmentioned other sister who showed up in the finale of Sherlock, or with other young female Holmes analogues in the Canadian television show The Adventures of Shirley Holmes or the Japanese miniseries Miss Sherlock.
Serving as her own Watson, sixteen-year-old Enola (Brown) talks to the camera, explaining her own backstory – raised by eccentric mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) and tutored in all manner of detection and survival skills, but not the basics of conducting herself as a young lady in an 1890s context. Eudoria, who has secret meetings with a cabal of women, abandons her daughter – apparently to join some form of suffragette terrorist cell, judging from their stash of infernal devices in a Limehouse warehouse. Enola becomes the rebellious ward of her brother Mycroft (Sam Claflin) – here slim, ungifted, stuffy and a political conservative. He wants to send Enola to a finishing school run by a caricature tyrant (Fiona Shaw) and his diffident if more sympathetic detective brother Sherlock (Henry Cavill) doesn’t initially intervene. Enola disguises herself as a lad and runs away to London. On the train, she falls in with an aristocratic youth (Louis Partridge) who is on the run from a bowler-hatted assassin (Burn Gorman) – and the film gets distracted from whatever Eudoria is up to (presumably that would be covered in sequels) to concentrate on the plot against the young lord.
Springer reshaped the characters to her own ends, which is carried over here in a way that might give purists pause – though, frankly, Conan Doyle’s crew have all suffered much worse over the years. Ever since Christopher Lee sneered through Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, the tendency has been to make Mycroft a thin, sinister Establishment figure. Clafin plays him almost as an out and out villain, complete with Dick Dastardly moustache. As Sherlock, Cavill has a romantic poet hairdo – and his Superman physique fills out a Victorian waistcoat in a manner that makes this sleuth a far cry from the usual lean, hawk-nosed misfit. The handsomest Sherlock since Roger Moore in Sherlock Holmes in New York, Cavill similarly seems to have been cast on the principle that if he can play one or more pop culture heroes successfully he should be able to make a fair fist of Sherlock Holmes. Not terrible, he’s a little on the bland side, bereft of eccentricities and seldom shown to be brilliant – which is fair enough, since this is Enola’s film.
The meat of the matter comes in a scene where Enola argues with Sherlock about Victorian injustice – reasoning that the world is entirely comfortable for an upper-class English gent like him, so he’s got no rooting interest in changing it … whereas his marginalised mother and sister can’t even vote. It’s a well-made point and prods this more sensitive Sherlock to change his ways (a little) – but it’s odd that the crux of the plot is a vote in the House of Lords on a reform bill that won’t extend the franchise to women (because – history) but is still perceived as enough of a threat by the ultimate villain to make it worth murdering presumably loved members of their own family. And progress depends on a ridiculously privileged hereditary peer deigning to extend rights to people who should never have been denied them in the first place. Thorne has credits on a range of recent high-end TV – he created the supernatural series The Fades and has worked on This is England and His Dark Materials, and also scripted new versions of The Secret Garden and Séance on a Wet Afternoon. It’s too easy to caricature his work as ‘woke’ revisionism – and this fits into the current trend for making period stories with a range of ethnicities visible in minor roles (Adeel Akhtar is a fairly grubby, perhaps-corrupt Inspector Lestrade) and finding points of overlap with current debates that don’t always sit comfortably.
As a period romp, this offers familiar pleasures – there is, of course, a sequence in which the plucky heroine hangs off the side of a speeding steam train while grappling with a hatchet-faced killer … and several sequences hinge on the historical fact that there a segment of the suffragette movement learned jiu-jitsu to deal with police harassment during protests. The look owes a lot to Guy Ritchie’s Holmes films, with nice CGI-assisted recreations of 1890s London — though it’s a bit light on actual deduction and detective work since Enola mostly blunders into situations and wriggles out again at the convenience of the story. Partridge is surprisingly likeable in the potentially hazardous role of posh bloke love interest – basically playing the damsel in distress role while Brown handles all the kung fu – and there’s a splendid turn from Frances de la Tour as the marquess’ dowager grandmother. It’s not a classic – but it’s undemanding, watchable stuff, and miles ahead of that Will Ferrell film. If you got through Sherlock Gnomes, you’ll be okay with this.
I’ve been meaning to watch this, but I’ve gotten too hooked on Euro cop shows to get around to it. Millie Bobby Brown was an acute disappointment in Stranger Things, which is one of the reasons why I can’t watch it. (I’m also much too old for ’80s nostalgia to have any interest.) I had seen her previously in Intruders, an adaptation of one of the few Michael Marshall Smith novels that I haven’t read. In that, she played a 9 year old girl possessed by the spirit of an approx. 80 y.o. profane, violent, sarcastic serial killer/gangster from Brooklyn, and she nailed it. She and James Frain, sometimes irritating (cough, cough, Orphan Black), but terrific here, comprehensively stole the series from leads John Simm & Mira Sorvino. I write that as a huge fan of both John Simm (I watched season 1 of Grace last night) and Mira Sorvino (who was a guest in the best episode of House M.D.). I’d been looking forward to the series as much for them as because it was a Smith adaptation, but they faded into the background against the verbal pyrotechnics of Brown & Frain. In Stranger Things there isn’t a hint of that from Brown, but maybe she is better in this.
There’s a certain level of revisionism which is actually countering the historical propaganda of media as the white man’s paradise. One thing Denzel Washington discovered while researching The Magnificent Seven remake was the blindingly obvious fact the Old West was not at all white and one of the rare periods of American history where blacks, whites, and Asian Americans were all pushed together side-by-side making history. It just had been stripped of all color by white Hollywood.
Enola Holmes is meant to be a fantasy but I appreciate the certain level of frankness that it deals with regarding the Victorian Era. Certainly, Arthur Conan Doyle would have approved to an extent and “spirited young woman” fiction was hardly uncommon at the period. I have less sympathy for her mother, though, given that her education as a young Jane Bond apparently lacked learning how to navigate society so she could put most of her uncommon skills to use. Camouflage for a Victorian woman was a matter of survival back then.