Gah. Maybe Hollywood’s woke nonsense (some might say garbage, and I shan’t demur, if you insist) would only have seemed less pervasive a few years back, when my sensors weren’t quite so attenuated, and I would thus have given Enola Holmes an entirely free pass. It is, after all, only doing what has been done to many a famous literary property before, and often quite successfully: putting a spin on it. Sherlock Holmes in particularly, has proved particularly elastic and accommodating in this regard, so the idea of a hitherto unmentioned junior sibling to the sleuth and his brother Mycroft is fair game. Just as Stigerson was to Gene Wilder. I just wish it didn’t keep bashing your head against its 2020 social programming.
Perhaps Nancy Springer’s series of neo-Victorian Young Adult novels followed suit (or led the way), and she’d been ahead of the game. However, it seems that, in the books, the societal restrictions are fully formed, and the main character conforms to them in public; Jack Thorne’s adaptation simply accentuates everything with blunt force trauma, such that Enola Holmes becomes an unwieldly blend of period restrictions and modern behaviours. Or, in some cases, no restrictions at all. Obviously, such a presentist approach is now fully favoured across the arts, all the better to rewrite history (while simultaneously instructing us not to forget it). That would be where the WEF was earmarked to enter stage left, pursued by a bear.
So, aided by her progressive and far-sighted mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham-Carter), Enola (Millie Bobby Brown) wishes for all the freedoms a (privileged as she already is, and white) male is allowed, reflecting the burgeoning women’s movement. Consequently, in characteristic on-the-nose fashion, a major plot point is stapled to the Reform Bill (not women’s vote, but on the path there). Even more sledgehammer is Eudoria’s willingness to use violence to achieve her goals (in the books she goes to live with some gypsies). It’s heavy-handed, for sure, but outside of the failure to recognise that all social movements are engineered by TPTB, rather than organic, and anyone who believes they are a free thinker in that regard is every bit as – if not more so – manipulated (Hegelianism in practice), this is all just about germane to the era and gives the protagonist a degree of combative underpinning.
Less so, the cake-and-eat it approach to period strictures. Women are attempting to cast off the shackles of oppression, but there’s an entirely-unremarked-upon detective inspector of Pakistani/Kenyan descent working at Scotland Yard (Adeel Akhtar makes for a very enjoyable Lestrade, as long as you laugh in the face of period prescriptions)? Enola is sent to a very multicultural finishing school, one replete with Asian teachers. Edith (Susie Wokoma) somehow manages to run a successful jujitsu school for women in Limehouse in spite of the prevailing social and racial prejudices and restrictions of the time, while offering the kind of unguarded opinions to those of class status that surely wouldn’t see her free to do any of that for very long.
As alluded, such an approach is increasingly de rigueur in film and TV. You can see it in Doctor Who (at least Enola had the graciousness to be a separate person, rather than recasting her as Sherlock himself). In the recent 1899. In the disparate likes of The Dig and Belfast. And you can, of course, argue that none of this matters, usually armed with proficient strawman arguments. I’d question any attempt, such as this, to address subjects on the one hand and ignore related ones entirely on the other, not only because it’s dishonest, but also because it disdains verisimilitude. At least decide on the rules for your universe (which, to be fair, Armando Iannucci did with his presentist David Copperfield).
Enola Holmes doesn’t have much of a mystery, or mysteries, to solve, but that’s mostly okay. Her mother’s murky activities are revealed by a warehouse full of weaponry, while the threat to her other case/teen passion Viscount Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge) is a simple matter of who stands to gain from his demise (it isn’t revelatory, and one can only assume it takes Sherlock the time it does to arrive at the answer because he only actually cast his eye over the situation ten minutes before he went to see Lestrade).
Harry Bradbeer’s – he’s married into the aristocracy himself – movie is more concerned with a confident, confidential, energised tone, picking up where Guy Ritchie’s take on the sleuth, starring the Vril’d former Robert Downey Jr, left off. Enola talks to the audience, the camera offers subjective takes on her thought processes and cypher skills, and the entire affair moves at a clip. There’s the occasional occult/arcane nod, from beekeeping (later Sherlock’s pastime) to pinecones (giving Enola her first kill) to chessboard floors at Basilwelter Hall.
And Brown graduates to movie lead with due aplomb, evidently having studied her accent at the Keira Knightley school of posh. The picture is mostly populated with serviceable turns by familiar hands – Bonham-Carter, Frances de la Tour, Burn Gorman, Fiona Shaw – but Sam Claflin and Henry Cavill make the strongest impressions as the latest takes on Mycroft and Sherlock. There’s nothing remotely beneficent in Claflin’s elder brother (the actor is actually three years younger than Cavill), positioned as the regressive force in favour of the Empire remaining exactly as is. That part works in terms of the overall dynamic, although I’m less sure about reinterpreting him as a lesser deductive force than his sibling(s), since he’d always been accounted for as superior in skillz (“Mycroft isn’t blessed as you are. As she is”, Holmes is told).
Cavill’s even more unlikely in his way, inhabiting Sherlock as a Byronesque type, had Byron been a bodybuilder. He’s also remarkably empathic and emotionally sensitive. Somehow, this works, though. Perhaps it’s because, after the uber-aspergic Cumberbatch account, anything in sharp retreat is a relief.
Enola Holmes was a “hit” for Netflix, hence the sequel. More importantly than being a hit, and despite the factors I’ve outlined above, it carries itself as a fully conceived movie, a rarity for the service that tends to deliver content no one wants to watch, vanity auteur projects no one else wants to fund, or blockbuster fare of such expense, one suspects they’re in the aid of some sort of money-laundering operation (not least since the evidence of the expense is rarely on screen). It should be no surprise then, that Enola was a Warner Bros project Netflix snapped up due to the coof. Enola Holmes is okay, then. But let’s not get carried away.