Enola Holmes is now streaming on Netflix.
By Palmer Rubin
That the story of Sherlock Holmes’ younger and estranged teenage sister works as effectively as it does is nothing short of miraculous. The premise alone sounds groan-worthy: a character connected to a famous public domain hero to sell more copies, it’s been done numerous times. Enola Holmes falters in a few key places as it tries to integrate the late 19th century with the topical issues of today, and doesn’t seem to even remotely understand what it’s talking about. It’s well-intentioned, but this is a proudly feminist movie directed and written by men, and so it falls into every one of the narrative traps Wonder Woman fell into before that as a result. George Miller is the only man who could possibly get close to that sweet spot. But that’s not to say that there isn’t fun to be had along the way, and a lot of missed potential is otherwise buoyed up by a spectacular lead performance.
Millie Bobby Brown is probably given the most amount of dialogue in a career most famous for playing a mostly mute telekinetic, but it begs the question why she wasn’t sooner. You’ve got to wonder whether the success of “Stranger Things” is entirely due to how they accidentally knocked it out of the park with its cast, and Brown is no exception. Enola Holmes is a character that feels very easy to get wrong, to make her a little too invincible and therefore inaccessible. One of the film’s numerous narrative conventions it soon abandons is to have Enola talk to camera in the style of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag” (this film’s director, Harry Bradbeer, directed that series, so that’s why), and Brown is more than able to keep up in that capacity. It’s a shame the convention is eventually abandoned for normal voiceovers since there’s some humor to be mined in her constantly turning to camera at random moments, even if Brown unintentionally makes it feel like an episode of “Dora the Explorer” at times (not necessarily a bad thing).
The issue is that everything aside from Brown is either a case of completely miscast actors (everyone aside from Brown just does not work in their respective roles, hard as they try), or plot points that randomly disappear and reappear without warning. The film stuffs two cases into one, the mystery of Enola’s missing mother and the case of a young nobleman whose vote is needed to pass a bill allowing white women to vote. The former is abandoned for most of the film’s runtime even as Enola occasionally spends five minutes going back to it, and the latter works fine (Louis Partridge, adorable, is the only other cast member to at least vibe with the setting) even when it undercuts the overall points the film is trying to make. Enola does not wish to be wed, as this Arthur Conan Doyle by way of Jane Austen protagonist is wont to be, even though he brothers wish her to be wed and off their hands. Yet Enola is clearly taken with the young nobleman and instantly eager to give up her independence to be wedded to him, and so the film uses a convenience to put Enola in the role of a housewife anyway. If you’re wondering why this film spends its runtime trending towards the plot of the direct-to-DVD Mulan sequel (the animated one, not the godawful live-action remake from this year), your guess is as good as mine. One only has to point the finger at screenwriter Jack Thorne, most famously the creator of the infamous stage play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” to wonder why a film that makes token gestures towards women’s rights and the like has the film end implying Enola shouldn’t actually be a Big Strong Independent Woman after all. Again, this is a film written and directed by men calling itself feminist on paper, without really being very much like that in execution. Bradbeer’s direction is lively and he’s clearly a good match for this material, but he’s so beholden to Thorne that there isn’t much that can be done.
The other problem that emerges is one our media is clashing with over and over, the assertion that it is only Individuals Who Are Bad, Not Systems. All that I’ve said hasn’t spoiled the plot one bit, even as the identity of who wants to kill Partridge’s twinky nobleman is obvious the second you meet that character going into a diatribe that sounds right out the mouth of Margaret Thatcher’s corpse. That one individual is eventually dispatched by Enola’s hands, and that which should have been a right for all of human history as seen as some sort of improvement. Now that the Bad Person is gone, the Good System can resume, even as we know that’s just not how life works. If Enola Holmes did not see fit to try and do this empty Wonder Woman posturing so much (that film, too, was written by men about a superhero who can only fight with permission from the men around her), then I wouldn’t be criticizing it on this front. Systems can never be oppressive, so says the film, because it can’t possibly imagine the implications of said system.
But then again, I’m being overly harsh on the film as it is, and ignoring all that, it’s still fun to watch Brown skate circles around Enola’s two older brothers, one of whom being Sherlock Holmes. Henry Cavill isn’t an especially good choice for this character on paper, though it’s hysterical to watch the film reimagine Sherlock as an idiot himbo who only gets accolades because of his status as an aristocrat who’s only slightly more observant than his posh colleagues. Inexplicably, instead of Watson, there’s his asshole brother Mycroft, played by Sam Claflin as sort of a minor antagonist for Enola. The film is at its best with Brown and Partridge being chased by goons and getting into all sorts of mishaps, and at its worst during the film’s constant stream of flashbacks to Helena Bonham Carter as the Holmes matriarch giving vague affirmations that wouldn’t be out of place in a Buzzfeed listicle. Carter is fine, but I really wish they’d committed to one of the cases rather than two, or have Carter go missing and never have an explanation for it, to make Mrs. Holmes sort of like the Uncle Ben for Enola. I think that, and having women be involved in a creative capacity and implicating the British systems of imperialism itself rather than one aristocrat, would’ve been the far braver play here. It’s frustrating because the film has so much potential as it is, and Brown is so good that it’s frustrating watching her try to regurgitate Thorne’s wet noodle dialogue.
Essentially, imagine an ingenious and inventive detective story that abruptly had portions of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” play without any context or reason, and that’s sort of the tonal dissonance that really makes this film suffer. I’m not advocating to depoliticize the film, Joker is what happens when you try that for better or worse. I’m simply advocating for people with skin in the game to be given the reins on this particular narrative. Having two white men do that is beyond condescending and beyond patronizing, even as one of them did help make a really fantastic television series once. Enola Holmes so obviously wants to be Victorian-era Wonder Woman that it kneecaps itself during every moment it could truly be great, a story about an empowered woman only being empowered in the ways that won’t frighten men too much. There’s a much more radical and truly feminist film hiding inside the bones of this one, and it seems that only Millie Bobby Brown was able to get towards that movie.
I don’t think any moment encapsulates the paradox of this film, both in what it does well and what it doesn’t, as a scene early in the film where Sherlock and Enola talk about her childhood and he mentions that the childhood hero of this feminist warrior is Queen Victoria, the ultimate monarchist and imperialist. Bradbeer and Thorne are so convinced that any woman will do that it feels like naming Leni Riefenstahl as the childhood hero of Anne Frank or J.K. Rowling as mine (and ironically, she very much was one of mine). I think as we understand the ways in which women that benefit most from patriarchal systems, especially cis white women, this becomes more and more old hat of a notion. Ironically, she could’ve easily just named Helen Keller or something to that effect without stepping on too many toes. There’s a lot of moments like that in this film, that I couldn’t help but fixate on, and I know the argument against all this thought is that this is just a movie for kids. And it is just a movie for kids, and you could do a lot worse than this, and I’d even encourage your kids to watch this, if you have any. But the argument that children’s media shouldn’t be analyzed is a ridiculous one because that in turn says that the minds and thoughts and feelings of children aren’t worth considering, as if we never had those as children. Part of the reason why we’re in this mess is that we’ve spent a while now teaching children that they’re stupid and pointless till the second they turn 18, and then they have to figure out all this adult nonsense all at once.
Anyway, yes, this film is a giant metaphor about encouraging The Youths to vote, even though we’ll be fired from our jobs and Election Day is on a workday. That is not to say, don’t vote, but also understand why most of us aren’t able to. It’s not because we don’t care, it’s because we can’t. And I’m saying all this as one of those Youths who won’t be one for much longer who has the luxury to do so because my hours are way more flexible than most when it comes to my work. It is the systems that need to burn down, not the people.