Has Sherlock’s steely soul softened at last? That’s the allegation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate in a bizarre lawsuit against Netflix claiming that, while Sherlock Holmes has long been in the public domain, his empathy and kindness only emerged in Doyle’s final stories and is, therefore, still under copyright. But the Netflix film at the center of the lawsuit, Enola Holmes, doesn’t actually care much for Sherlock one way or the other, and that’s part of what makes it such delightful, if disorderly, dose of fan fiction.
In Harry Bradbeer’s film, Sherlock (Henry Cavill) is primarily a nettlesome, meddlesome frustration for his kid sister, Enola (Millie Bobby Brown), a character invented by Nancy Springer in a magnetic six-book detective series for kids. And while Enola’s famous brother may show signs of human emotion now and again, that doesn’t stop the youngest Holmes from running rings around him as she races to investigate a pair of disappearances.
Enola (that’s “alone” backward) has been happily homeschooled in history, indoor tennis, and ciphers by her brilliant mother, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter). But when Eudoria vanishes, Enola’s left to deal with her brothers, the not-so-sociopathic Sherlock and chauvinistic Mycroft (Sam Claflin). To escape a fate worse than death—Miss Harrison’s finishing school, complete with corset—Enola sneaks off to London on her own, meeting up along the way with an adolescent marquess, Tewksbury (Louis Partridge), who’s fleeing both his oppressive, aristocratic family and a deadly assassin.
Even as Enola puts all her prodigious sleuthing skills to use, including her mastery of martial arts (do you think simple Sherlock knows jiu-jitsu?), a more existential mystery is unfolding: How can an independent young woman make a life for herself in Victorian England? The answer lies somewhere among the gender-bending wardrobe of Enola’s disguises and the shadowy suffragist uprising that Enola’s mother may or may not be spearheading, armed with a warehouse full of gunpowder. And if Enola isn’t sure what to make of her life by the end of the film, she’s only strengthened her conviction that she’s not going to let anyone—especially not any man, and most definitely not any man named Holmes—make her choices for her.
In channeling Enola’s slightly sassy shrewdness, Brown casts off the specter of her other Netflix franchise-in-progress; Enola’s just as powerful as Stranger Things’s Eleven, but her self-assuredness, despite the period setting, often feels more bracingly contemporary. Brown’s at her most electric when mugging directly to the camera in wry asides and facial contortions tinged with conflicted emotions, suggesting a younger, more athletic version of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s eponymous character from Fleabag. This isn’t a coincidence, as Bradbeer helmed both seasons of that show, and the devices he established there for connecting heroine and audience through secret winks and nods have stuck. Even when the plot occasionally falters, Enola’s continuous invitations to complicity renew the film’s momentum.
Bradbeer preserves Enola’s assertive narratorial voice not only through these endearing moments of direct-audience address, but also through some whimsical visual effects-laden scenes. Animations of anagram tiles rearranging themselves as Enola puzzles out various cyphers spiritedly illuminate her virtuosic mind. In the film’s loveliest moments, pop-up Victorian hand drawings spark on to the screen during transitional moments and flashbacks.
When Enola Holmes teeters, it’s due to an unwillingness to commit to an audience. Though Springer’s book series veers toward younger readers, Jack Thorne’s screenplay ages Enola up to 16 (from 14 in the books), and a couple of scenes of harrowing violence, including a waterboarding, earn the film its PG-13 rating. But the plot isn’t mature or coherent enough to justify a turn toward YA viewers. The border between friendship and flirtation in Enola’s relationship with Partridge’s surprisingly self-reflective marquess remains murky, and the film’s fleeting interest in the 1884 Parliamentary Reform Act puts vague political history center stage without ever explaining what’s at stake for the nation.
Enola herself, though, seems streetwise and witty enough to win over whatever age group’s watching and earn herself a sequel. And when she does, Sherlock, emotional or not, is more than welcome to once again stay out of the spotlight. Case closed.