A month ago, I learnt the reason Sherlock Holmes adaptations portray him as a cold rationalist. Because if portrayed otherwise, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's estate can sue for copyright infringement, like they're currently suing Netflix. Their argument: Henry Cavill's Sherlock showing emotion " or respecting women even " in the film Enola Holmes is a character trait he only developed in Doyle's later stories, which are not in the public domain and thus still fall under copyright law. The whole thing sounds so preposterous Sherlock himself would have laughed it off in an uncharacteristic display of emotion. Besides, Sherlock is nothing but a secondary character in Harry Bradbeer's adaptation of Nancy Springer's spin-off.
Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown) is not just a brain, the rest of her not mere appendix. Home-schooled by her widowed ahead-of-the-times mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter), she learns history, science, cryptography, tennis, archery, jiu-jitsu and everything to flourish as an independent woman in a Victorian England which scorned them. All of her lessons are put to practice when her mother suddenly disappears on the morning of her 16th birthday. Brothers Sherlock and Mycroft (Sam Claflin) arrive to investigate but turn out to be typical authoritarians, shocked by Enola's unsophisticated ways. "We will make her acceptable for society," Mycroft declares, deciding to send her to a finishing school run by Miss Harrison (Fiona Shaw). Enola is rattled by the idea of joining an assembly line of presentable young ladies, whose body, mind and spirit are corseted into submission. So, she sneaks off to London to find her mother.
Enola frequently breaks the fourth wall. Image from Netflix.
Along the way, she becomes involved in another missing-person mystery: of the young Viscount Tewksbury, Marquess of Basilwether (it's a mouthful and turns into a running joke). This initially feels like a B-plot, a sub-investigation that weakens the intrigue of the preliminary. Mid-way through the film, it becomes clear the case of the missing mother will serve as the common thread for future Enola Holmes mysteries. It will possibly remain a background investigation whose outcome may not be revealed until the end of the saga.
The film sure updates the stories of Sherlock Holmes we all know and love, without erasing their original identity. It doesn't just piggyback on Sherlock's beloved status, it promises a fresh origin story which is part coming-of-age comedy, and part literary revisionism. As a mystery, however, it leaves a lot to be desired. The case of the missing marques resolves itself in an all-too-obvious ending.
In addition, the onscreen visualisation of Enola's deductions are not quite as ingenious as it is in Steven Moffat's Sherlock. It's mostly Enola unscrambling anagrams with scrabble tiles. What we do get are Victorian pop-up illustrations that fill audience in on backstories and necessary exposition. Keeping with this aesthetic, Enola even provides occasional fourth-wall breaking comments on the events. At times, just a bemused facial expression does the trick. It feels like an organic extension of Enola's inner thoughts, reminding us she's still a teen navigating a world of adults.
Bradbeer's painting of Victorian society doesn't however free Enola from the constraints of the era. On arriving at the train station, Sherlock and Mycroft initially don't recognise Enola on account of her clothes. They're expecting a young woman in corset, gloves, hat and a carriage. The implications of a strong, independent girl being an alien concept to these Englishmen adds an uplifting undercurrent to Enola's story. Feminine symbols and gender presumptions become tools to escape from, and blend into, society. Her mother's sketches of flowers contain a code that will lead her to a secret stash of cash that will aid her escape, and help stay one step ahead of Sherlock.
Enola takes advantage of her status as a young girl to hide her intelligence. She often dresses up in men's clothes, and even offers bystanders money for them. This becomes a running gag, but it's a strategy she uses to allow her greater freedom of movement and do her job without being discovered. When required, she plays the part, complete with corset so she doesn't stand out as she roams around London. Aware of how anxious people get over conversations about death, she even dresses up as a widow. "There's no better disguise than fear," she says.
There's a historical context to these events at play. In the backdrop of the story is the decisive vote over a reform bill, which will make voting a right instead of a privilege, and usher in the women's suffrage movement. Doyle's stories weren't explicitly political, and Sherlock's own knowledge of politics is "feeble" " as Dr. Watson describes in A Study in Scarlet. Enola Holmes takes a different approach. When Sherlock confronts Edith (Susie Wokoma), a jiu jitsu instructor and a member of Eudoria's secret suffragette society, on Enola's whereabouts, she explains why he can't empathise with his sister, his mother and women in general. She calls him out on his political apathy, asserting it is not out of boredom but an unwillingness to change a world that "suits him so well."
Claflin as Mycroft is cartoonishly uppity. For the most part, Cavill's Sherlock is "cold and unemotional" as required by law. But every time Enola outsmarts Sherlock, Cavill lets out a smile, reminding us there's a brother, or at least a human, operating this square-jawed machine of deduction. Brown balances Enola's sprightly courage with just the right notes of emotional vulnerability. Armed with logic and empathy, Enola navigates a 19th century patriarchy which deems men as rational and women as emotional, like they were clear-cut opposites. What makes her Enola so endearing is she is a teenaged girl playing dress-up in a man's world. But she refuses the social condition imposed on her. Influenced by her mother's (then) avant-garde ideas of women's empowerment, she takes charge of her own destiny separate from that of her famous brothers. By the end, Enola is not only surviving but thriving in a world she shouldn't be.
As for the mystery of how good the movie is, I would say it makes a persuasive case for a sequel, if not a whole saga.
Enola Holmes premieres on Netflix on 23 September.