Review: Setting Aside Its Asides, Netflix’s Enola Holmes Works Best as a Coming-of-Age Adventure

Being totally unfamiliar with author Nancy Springer’s six-novel series about the teenage sister of detective Sherlock Holmes and Mycroft Holmes (who is also technically Enola’s legal guardian), I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from a film version of the first of her adventures, “The Case of the Missing Marquess” (adapted by Jack Thorne). But when I saw that Enola Holmes was being directed by Harry Bradbeer (who directed, among many other things, every episode of “Fleabag”), I was fairly certain there would at least be a great deal of Enola talk to the camera. I was not disappointed on that point.

Enola Holmes

Image credit Robert Viglaski

Set in 1884 England, the film begins with a quick overview of the Holmes family dynamic. Sherlock and Mycroft left home when Enola was still fairly young and never looked back. Thankfully, their eccentric and wildly intelligent mother (Helena Bonham Carter) was around to homeschool Enola (Millie Bobby Brown, “Stranger Things”) and give her the kind of education that would guarantee she would have to rely on no one for resources or answers. But on the morning of Enola’s 16th birthday, Mrs. Holmes vanishes, leaving her an assortment of gifts but no real indicator as to where she’s gone. Enola is forced to call on her brothers (Henry Cavill as Sherlock and Sam Claflin as Mycroft) to return home to find the house in shambles and Enola lacking the training to become a proper, marriageable young lady.

While Mycroft prepares to ship Enola to a finishing school (under the direction of Fiona Shaw’s stern and nasty headmistress), she decides to take off on her own to search for her mother, realizing that some of the gifts she was left are actually clues. On the train to London, her search becomes entangled in the case of young runaway Lord Tewksbury (Louis Partridge), whose father was killed when he was younger, leaving him next in line for an important government position that has made him the target of a police manhunt (led by a Scotland Yard detective played by Adeel Akhtar) and an assassin (Burn Gorman). Enola finds herself sympathizing with the young Marquess’ plight and decides to help hide him, evade capture/death, and figure out who is trying to have him taken out.

Enola Holmes is a proper adventure story, filled with a handful of spirited chases, actual life-and-death consequences, a handful of mysteries that require the combined efforts of Enola and her detective brother. It’s also an inspiring tale about a girl who has different ideas about where she would like her life to lead that don’t line up with the expectations of polite society. There are many moments in the story where Enola’s theories and opinions are dismissed simply because she’s female, and it’s a constant source of frustration and inspiration for her to defy those who refuse to take her seriously. In fact, the film’s best moments often stem from Enola behaving in a way that demands she be taken seriously by both her blood relations and complete strangers.

As I mentioned earlier, the film does feature Enola looking right into camera and addressing the viewer as something of a confidant. Every time she does it, it took me right out of the film since it basically acknowledges that this period film is not set in the period in question. Yes, I realize this is an issue of suspension of disbelief, something I engage in with movies on a daily basis. But when the lead character of a tale set in the late 1800s addresses a motion picture camera that hasn’t been invented yet, it makes that suspension a little harder to achieve. But more importantly, Enola breaking the fourth wall serves no real purpose other than as a gimmick. Her asides are meant to engage us, to draw us in, but they have the exact opposite impact. It deflects us, distances us, calls attention to its movie-ness, and seems remarkably unnecessary and pointless, above all else. Turn it into a narration, and I’m in, no questions asked.

This is truly a shame because Brown’s natural intelligence and charm are used to full effect here, and they help keep the film afloat at times. Cavill and Claflin are also solid, with only Cavill really attempting to add any dimension to Sherlock, making him less of a deduction machine and more of a caring, concerned brother—a role he didn’t take on with Enola when they were younger. There are a handful of colorful supporting players, including Frances de la Tour as Tewksbury’s elderly and gravely concerned grandmother, and Susan Wokoma as a teashop owner who clandestinely runs a radical branch of the women’s suffrage movement.

Enola Holmes is an above-average romp that works best when it concentrates on the details and is less about the broad strokes of the Holmes mystique. It’s beautifully photographed and strongly acted, but for all of its sweeping scale, this simple story of a girl looking for her mother is at its most emotionally engaging as the coming-of-age story of someone who feels no one is on her side in a world trying to suppress her natural gifts and desires for her future.

The film is currently streaming on Netflix.

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