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Non-Review Review: Enola Holmes

Enola Holmes is a movie with a lot of charm, anchored in a sense of playful enthusiasm and a winning central performance.

Adapted from Nancy Springer’s The Enola Holmes Mysteries series of novels, the basic premise of Enola Holmes is straightforward enough. The classic Victorian detective Sherlock Holmes is given a younger sister, who inevitably finds herself forced to navigate the wider world while solving mysteries and avoiding the best efforts of her older brothers to ship her off to a suffocating and restrictive boarding school where she might be taught to be a lady.

Make yourself at Holmes…

Enola Holmes moves quickly and cheerfully through its starting premise and central mystery, bouncing from one sequence to another with considerable grace. However, it’s lead actor Millie Bobby Brown who carries the film. Brown is probably best known for her work on Stranger Things and a prominent role in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but Enola Holmes suggests a long and promising career ahead of the young actor. It is impossible to imagine the movie seeming as effortless without her at its centre.

In fact, Enola Holmes suffers most when it moves away from its protagonist and makes room in her story for less compelling (but more nominally “important”) characters that wind up sapping the film’s energy. Enola Holmes has a surprisingly slow start for a film that breezes along once it finds its footing, and that is largely because it is initially reluctant to give its central character the breathing room that she needs. Still, once the film gets past that, it is a highly enjoyable adventure.

Enola that look…

Put simply, Enola Holmes falters when it gives space to its canonical characters, struggling to build momentum during a lengthy preamble featuring Henry Cavill as Sherlock and Sam Clafin as Mycroft Holmes. Of course, these characters are important to the perceived “world-building” of the film, and both Cavill and Clafin are sizable enough stars (with strong enough fanbases) to merit the screen time that the movie gives over to them. However, the simple fact is that neither the actors nor the characters are especially interesting.

Part of this is simply the misfortune of casting. In recent years, audiences have been spoiled for choice when it comes to actors playing the great detective: Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes, Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary, Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock, Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes, even Will Ferrell in Holmes and Watson. Of course, not all of these performances worked and not all of these performances will be to every taste, but they offer an example of the character’s pop cultural prominence.

Big shoes to Cavill.

It is hard not to look at Cavill and Clafin, to compare them to Robert Downey Jr. and Stephen Fry or Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Gatiss, and feel somewhat underwhelmed. The structuring of Enola Holmes – as a story where Holmes is both a peripheral figure and a major gravitation object – demands a proper movie star in the role. Cavill is a familiar face, but he has yet to demonstrate the rarified screen presence necessary to fulfill the role that the script demands of him. This is no knock on Cavill, as there are few enough movie stars these days.

As a result, it seems like Enola Holmes spends far too much time with Sherlock and that it offers far too little in return. There is nothing in Cavill’s performance to suggest the sort of Victorian celebrity that merits the press attention suggested by Enola’s clip-book or the fandom invoked by a mid-film trivia battle between Enola and Detective Lestrade to determine which of the pair knows more about the subject of such obsession. Watching Enola Holmes, one cannot help but get the sense that Sherlock would make more of an impression were he entirely absent.

Oh brother, oh bother.

Of course, the scenes with Cavill and Clafin are most frustrating because they frequently sap the momentum and the fun of watching Enola at work. To be fair, Clafin works slightly better than Cavill, because at least Mycroft is supposed to be a killjoy. Even then, the film seems more impressed with Mycroft than it ought to be. Instead, Enola Holmes roars to life when it allows its hero to break free from her two elder siblings and make her own way in the world.

Once Enola Holmes allows its title character to take centre-stage, the film becomes a propulsive and playful period adventure. Director Harry Bradbeer is best known for his work on Fleabag, and the film’s central innovation comes from allowing the eponymous protagonist to directly address the camera and make the audience complicit in her delightful distractions. It is fascinating to see a film aimed at teenagers like this employ a technique that has largely come to be associated with adult fare like Fleabag or House of Cards.

The original Black Widow.

Millie Bobby Brown is tremendous in the film’s role, demonstrating a confidence that many performers twice her age have yet to master. Brown manages the rare feat of managing to be charming and complex in equal measure – Enola is a character who puts on a brave face, but who remains vulnerable. Enola Holmes hinges on the idea that this is Enola’s first real experience of the larger world, but also on the idea that he is more than capable of rising to meet it.

The central mystery at the heart of Enola Holmes is fairly straightforward. Audiences familiar with the rule of conservation of narrative and the tropes of stories like this will quickly solve the crime at the heart of the film, simply by combining various plot elements and thematic components together in the most logical sequence. However, the mystery of Enola Holmes is largely besides the point. After all, the joy a good mystery is not so much in the conclusion as in the resolution – the manner in which the pieces come together, rather than the final picture.

A straight arrow.

As such, Enola Holmes moves quickly and cleanly with its protagonist through a variety of almost episodic adventures and mishaps, all of which build towards a climax that is endearingly intimate and low-stakes given the directions in which the film threatens to branch. Along the way, Enola herself is constantly winking at the audience, guiding them through the trials and tribulations, and generally ensuring that the film is as welcoming and accessible as possible. It’s an approach that might be infuriating with a weaker central performance, but Brown is more than up to the task.

Jack Thorne’s script is perhaps a little clumsy and heavy-handed at points, but it understands the mechanics of the story that it is telling. Enola Holmes is not simply a loving tribute to the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it is also an act of fannish reclamation, of carving room in an established mythos for characters often marginalised or sidelined by the original stories. Enola Holmes is a transformative work, in some ways recalling the best of fan fiction.

Station keeping.

As such, the script never loses sight of the stakes for Enola herself. She is often forgotten and overlooked, to the point that her brothers walk right past her at a crowded train station. When Sherlock tries to track her down and remove her from this investigation, other characters push back at his efforts to restore the established order. “You see the world so closely, but do you see how it’s changing?” asks Edith, who taught Enola judo. When Sherlock denies any interest in politics, she replies, “Because you have no interest in changing a world that suits you so well.”

After all the film’s central motivator is the strange disappearance of the Holmes matriarch, Eudoria. Mycroft and Sherlock return home to discover that she has apparently squandered the allowance that Mycroft affords her, and has embroiled herself in the radical politics of the time. (“Oh good God,” Mycroft sighs on finding a well-read book. “Feminism. Perhaps she was mad. Or senile.”) Neither Sherlock nor Mycroft seem particularly eager to find Eudoria or to take responsibility for Enola, so Enola is forced to make her own way in the world.

Marquis my words…

These themes give Enola Gay a little more emotional heft than it might otherwise have, the film clarifying its own function and role in the larger expanding mythos around the world’s most famous detective. Still, Enola Gay never dwells too heavily on these big ideas, instead gleefully bouncing from one misadventure to the next, while trusting Brown to keep the audience on side along the way. The film strikes a fine balance.

Enola Holmes is a delight, albeit one that works much better when its comfortable focusing on Enola more than the other Holmes.

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