We all know of one Sherlock Holmes, he of the calabash pipe, expert deductive skills and a century-plus worth of pop-cultural staying power. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels about the resident of 221B Baker Street — along with the legion of movie, TV, radio-play and stage-production adaptations of his mysteries — are also familiar with the recurring character of his older brother Mycroft, who has some very important but vaguely defined job in the British government. (As for details regarding the more obscure Sigerson Holmes, well … you’ll have to inquire, via a medium, with the ghost of Gene Wilder about him.)
But what of Enola Holmes, the youngest child of the Holmes clan? This lesser-known branch of the family tree — and the heroine of a half dozen YA books by writer Nancy Springer — is the teenage sibling of the two brothers, though she’s essentially grown up as an only child; Sherlock and Mycroft left to find their fortunes in London when she was but a toddler. Raised in the countryside by their mom after the Holmes patriarch’s untimely passing, Enola was home-schooled in the art of self-defense, various sciences and a host of other subjects. Most of all, she’s been taught to be self-reliant and not accept what Victorian England has in store for young women, i.e. mindless servitude. Though the lass is younger than Sherlock, Enola’s powers of observation are almost as acute. She is whip-smart, adept at codebreaking and, once she eventually masters a complicated leg-hold known as “the corkscrew,” practically a jujitsu expert. And now, this plucky young sleuth-to-be is set to be the center of her very own movie series.
At least, that’s very much what Netflix is banking on, judging from the fancy-pants treatment they’ve given Enola Holmes. Littered with famous U.K. faces and the sort of production value that looks like a brink’s truck had been robbed to finance it, it’s very much a blockbuster take on Springer’s first book, The Case of the Missing Marquess. Dropped in to — what are we calling this, the Holmesverse? — the character immediately establishes herself as a plucky, puzzle-solving, fourth-wall-breaking counterpart to her brother’s more established detective. This Enola is not just a chip off of Sherlock’s block, she’s also got a little bit of Jason Bourne, Nancy Drew, Hermione Granger and Rey Skywalker thrown in for good measure here. The waft of we-smell-a-franchise is, at times, overwhelming. The I.P. game is afoot.
So give a heart welcome to Enola (Millie Bobby Brown), introduced biking through England’s mountains green and asking, in the first of her many direct addresses to the audience, “Where to begin?” (The number of conspiratorial asides in this inaugural adventure falls somewhere between a typical episode of Dora the Explorer and both combined seasons of Fleabag — which maybe isn’t surprising, given director Harry Bradbeer was an executive producer on/helmed most of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s comedy.) After a quick training montage involving the girl and her quirky mother (Helena Bonham Carter), the young Holmes awakens on her 16th birthday to find that her remaining parent has disappeared. Soon, Sherlock (Justice League‘s Superman, Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (The Hunger Game‘s superhunk Sam Claflin) arrive to suss out the situation, with the latter intending to send Enola to a finishing school. She is turned to be into a “proper lady.” No dice.
Slipping on to a train while dressed as a young man — this is her go-to getaway costume; she’s a master of many skills but only one single disguise — Enola heads to London in search of her mum. She also meets a boy in a bag, who turns out to be Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Patridge). He’s folded himself into a satchel so as to smuggle himself to safety, as his family is looking for him and his life may be in danger. Once they arrive in Blighty, the two teens go their separate ways. But fate isn’t done with them yet. Nor, for that matter, is the homicidal thug chasing Tewkesbury and who keeps running into Enola, or the young Ms. Holmes two brothers, both of whom are keenly scouring the city for their missing sister.
BOOM goes the explosion that happens at a warehouse full of gunpowder and fireworks! BANG, CRASH, PING soundtracks a shoot-out involving a shotgun and suits of armor! SMACK echoes down the streets of period-dressed London, as our heroine engages in hand-to-hand combat. UGH says Enola as she’s forced to fit herself into a whalebone corset, which was the fashion at the time! You could easily argue that that last bit is the gravest danger the young woman faces, and it’s a feature, not a bug, that no one can accuse Enola Holmes of burying its pro-feminist bona fides. The 19th-century finishing school, run by an even-sterner-than-usual Fiona Shaw, is a part constrictive conformity prison and part assembly-line factory for “acceptable wives and responsible mothers.” A reform bill to be voted on by the House of Lords is centered around “voter expansion” — a sly euphemism for the suffrage movement, and also the cause of the elder Mrs. Holmes’ AWOL status. Never mind that women weren’t granted a limited right to vote in Britain until 1918; this piece of legislation is the engine that sets Enola‘s thrills, spills and chills into motion. It also gives the movie a viewpoint and a call-to-action sense of purpose (Carter’s character takes a by-any-means-necessary approach to equal rights) beneath what sometimes feels like a generic YA action-adventure film coasting off name recognition of the family crest.
What this movie really has going for it, however, is the casting of its lead. The first season of Stranger Things turned Brown into a bona fide breakout star, yet it was hard not to wonder what she could do if, say, her character Eleven’s two primary settings weren’t teary vulnerability or full-on rage. (Her parts in the Godzilla reboots didn’t ask much of her past those default modes either.) How the young actor could handle a project that rested on her slim shoulders was also a bit of a question mark. This project, which Brown also co-produced, gives her a near-perfect showcase for her talents, as well as a chance to stretch out. She can handle herself in a brawl with no-goodniks or the patriarchy at large. Her wink-nudges to the audience come as winsome rather than groanworthy and grating, a task that’s harder than you think. Give her anybody to play off, whether it’s Cavill’s sturdy-jawed Sherlock or Carter’s offbeat mom or a host of crack character actors, and the lady can establish a breezy rapport with all of them. Not even a ho-hum romantic subplot slows her down. The kid doesn’t stay in the picture — she almost singlehandedly keeps it moving and alive.
Brown has such a natural wit and compelling screen presence, such an ability to shift from curious youngster to screwball comic to charismatic action hero on a dime, that it’s hard not to view Enola Holmes as a coming-out party of sorts. Look at the movie as a source of endless sequels, and you might sigh wearily. Reframe it as a star vehicle, however, and its charms are elementary.