The last decade or so has all but exhausted the Sherlock Holmes character. Between Guy Ritchie’s steampunk-esque duology starring Robert Downey Jr., the excellent BBC series “Sherlock,” which reimagines the character for modern day, and the CBS police procedural “Elementary,” which mirrors the aforementioned series’ conceit a bit too closely for comfort, Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary master of deduction, despite first appearing more than 130 years ago, has managed to reemerge as one of this century’s most indelible pop-culture mainstays.
His much-younger sister, Enola — created by novelist Nancy Springer and introduced in 2006’s “The Case of the Missing Marquess” — has felt the weight of Sherlock’s renown since he and elder brother Mycroft left home when she was little, saving every newspaper clipping detailing the great sleuth’s accomplishments. With her father having passed, Enola’s (Millie Bobby Brown) upbringing and education have been entirely at the hands of her bright, headstrong mother, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter). Together, the two have spent Enola’s childhood and adolescence turning their Victorian mansion into a freewheeling haven that marries learning, sport and creativity, becoming inseparable in the process.
That is, until Eudoria disappears without notice on her daughter’s 16th birthday, leaving Enola with only a hodgepodge of snapshot memories and vague encryptions to suggest her whereabouts. Hardly bothered to search for the mother to whom they were always too self-involved to pay attention, Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin) demand their untidy, unconventional sister attend a ladies’ finishing school so she can assume her “proper role” in society. But though Enola may be the least-known of the three siblings, she’s still a Holmes — analytical, clever and even a bit cunning — and plenty equipped to follow her mother’s tracks. And though she manages to abscond to London under her brother’s noses, her trip gets sidetracked when she encounters a young Parliamentarian with a mystery of his own.
While other Holmesian productions in recent years haven’t neglected the quirkiness and occasional ludicrousness of their central figure, “Enola Holmes” doubles up on the levity, leaning hard into quirky teen adventure-comedy territory and relying heavily on Brown’s dynamo charisma — and the film, as such, is a smashing delight. Harry Bradbeer makes his directorial debut after a long career behind the camera in TV, and his Emmy-winning work on “Fleabag” makes a clear mark here. Screenwriter Jack Thorne’s witty dialogue and Brown’s sly fourth-wall breaks alternate at sometimes breakneck speed, though the audience seldom loses touch with the heart of a scene. Along with keeping this repartee under control, Bradbeer also proves himself a capable purveyor of propulsive action, especially when the first act culminates in a foot chase set on a high-speed train. Paired with Daniel Pemberton’s orchestral, Romantic-style score and immaculate set design and costuming, the movie will likely make for an enthralling watch for fans of action-adventure, coming-of-age and period drama alike.
Though she’s more than confirmed herself as a phenom actress in “Stranger Things,” Brown exposes a whole new set of performative chops here, her magnetic, wink-a-minute charm on par with Ferris Bueller and Juno MacGuff. Largely unfettered by gratuitous romance — though she definitely shoots a pining gaze or two in the direction of the handsome Lord Tewksbury (Louis Partridge) — her character’s journey of learning to balance self-assurance with empathy and goodwill is, for the most part, brilliantly realized. When butting heads with Sherlock and Mycroft’s almost oblivious misogyny — the latter scoffs when he observes a feminist text in her possession — Enola boasts the resiliency of a woman twice her age, though not so much as to strip the character of vulnerability. Not to mention the number of chuckles her onscreen antics yield, a true 180 from Brown’s earlier dramatic work.
Brown’s groundedness and potency as a leading lady are much needed especially in the film’s back half, when it attempts to juggle a few more weighty talking points than a two-hour comedy can be realistically expected to handle. Though especially ripe for discussion in a year so fraught with outrage and division, plot points relating to the lines one draws when participating in civil disobedience (here, during the zenith of women’s suffrage in Britain) are left largely underdeveloped and ultimately brushed off. Rather, the film finds its greatest strength in perhaps its simplest attempt at a message, that sticking up for the little guy doesn’t mean sacrificing one’s dignity or sense of self-reliance, but that theme becomes garbled in the mishmash of the film’s climax, which amounts to little more than a semi-interesting game of political chess.
It may bite off a bit more than it can chew thematically, but “Enola Holmes” is otherwise a whip-smart, rollicking bit of entertainment with a fine performance at its center. It’s exactly the kind of intelligent teen flick Netflix could use more of in its arsenal.
John Battiston is a Times-Mirror reporter and founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at email@example.com. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.