Alternative histories of Sherlock Holmes are as fulsome as canonical adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s nineteenth-century detective tales. In the final season of the BBC television series Sherlock, creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss invented an older sister for the Holmes siblings Sherlock and Mycroft. Eurus Holmes, an unhinged and malevolent genius who nearly destroys her brothers, is yet another attempt to bind the famously ascetic and aloof detective in the web of family and society.
In the Netflix original film Enola Holmes, the sister is vastly younger, nearly as intelligent and shows every sign of following in her sleuthing sibling’s footsteps. Directed by Harry Bradbeer and adapted with wit and vim by Jack Thorne from Nancy Springer’s fictional series of the same name, Enola Holmes blasts many holes in the Sherlock Holmes canon without causing too much damage.
The film gives us a feisty adolescent heroine, a view of the past refracted through the present, and Henry Cavill as the most camera-friendly version of the consulting detective since Basil Rathbone.
Cavill’s Holmes appeared to have wandered out of the pages of a GQ period couture spread. But the movie is really about his 16-year-old sister, who flees her family home in the country to look for her missing mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) in London. An proto-feminist who has trained her daughter in an array of unfeminine skills from code breaking to self-defence, Eudoria has, despite all appearances, brought up 16-year-old Enola (Millie Bobby Brown) well – so much so that the young woman is always stays a few steps ahead of Sherlock.
Along the way, Enola meets a runaway lord, the delightfully named Viscount Lord Tewksbury (Louis Partridge). It’s a name that deserves to be said in full, and Enola does so ever so often.
The twinned disappearances – of Eudoria and Tewksbury – bring Enola face to face with the women’s suffrage movement. Mycroft, played with the right dose of chauvinistic toxicity by Sam Claflin, is among Enola’s big obstacles as she tries to locate Eudoria and deal with Viscount Lord Tewksbury’s situation.
Among the ideas merrily explored by the anachronistic screenplay is a multi-racial London in which non-white feminists lurk in tea houses. One of them provides a snappy one-liner about the inherent conservatism of Sherlock Holmes: you have no interest in changing a world that suits you so well, she tells him.
The 123-minute movie is respectful enough of Sherlock to let him – or rather, Henry Cavill – stand about looking thoughtful and debonair as Enola rips through London. Holmes’s assistant John Watson is nowhere in the picture – the film is dealing with too much else to accommodate him. Sherlock can’t be blamed for looking a bit lost.
Despite some uneven plotting revolving around the Tewksbury mystery, the movie confidently lands its progressive themes. Mille Bobby Brown is a delight as the young and fearless adventuress who has her first brush with life in the trenches of the gender wars. Her frequent knowing asides to the camera reveal her irreverence, and her fleet ways prove that she is a worthy successor of the Holmesian investigative technique (franchise alert!)
As the ideal boyfriend for a 16-year-old teenager with revolution on her mind and a flutter in her heart, Louis Partridge is a perfect foil to Brown. However, the always-delightful Helena Bonham Carter isn’t on the screen long enough. Used more as a talismanic presence, Bonham Carter nevertheless makes an impact as the mother who must abandon her domestic duties for a higher cause.
Evoking a long line of warrior women who must abandon home and hearth to make a difference, Eudoria provides the bridge between what is and what could be – a Holmes project without Sherlock, a period film without stuffiness, and a world in which data serves as the building bricks of a new and better present and future.