Content warning: spoilers ahead!
Her name is Enola, which is “alone” spelt backwards. Her surname? One that no one can forget: Holmes. And this is her story.
Enola Holmes is the new Netflix movie based on the Enola Holmes Mysteries series of books by Nancy Springer. In this story, Sherlock and Mycroft have a little sister, who has been brought up by her mother in a house in the countryside, without contact even with her own brothers. Enola’s mother is her whole world. She has taught her everything she knows, from history to science to decyphering skills and jujitsu. However, on the morning of Enola’s 16th birthday, her mother (Helena Boham Carter) disappears.
Enola Holmes truly gives Millie Bobby Brown the chance to shine. The movie showcases her incredible talent and range, and Millie stands out even within the incredible cast that this movie has. Enola Holmes irradiates the young actress. And this is no surprise, as she was one of the movie’s producers.
The movie presents Enola as this “wild child” that has been brought up outside of the 19th century upper-society rules. Thanks to her mother’s upbringing, Enola is smart and independent and, most of all, values her freedom. The movie makes a lot of emphasis on Enola’s desires to fight the path that her brothers have designed for her and show that, even when she is doing what is expected of her, life should always be lived on her own terms.
This is something that is very clear in the clothes that she wears. In an early scene in the movie, Miss Harrison (Fiona Shaw) gives Enola a speech about how corsets are a tool that allows women to freely take part in society, and not a trap as Enola sees them. Later on in the movie, Enola voluntarily chooses to wear a corset and a dress as a disguise. This speaks back to Miss Harrison’s statement as Enola’s use of traditionally feminine clothing allows her to blend in and effectively take part in British society, however, she does so on her own terms and in her own time. In fact, Enola changes costumes multiple times throughout the movie in order to go unnoticed. However, the moments in which she requests traditionally-female clothes while pretending to be a boy and vice-versa create fun situations that seem to challenge the character’s expectations based on the established gender norms.
Millie did an amazing job of showing Enola as what she is, a child, but also a young woman finding herself and challenging the patriarchal establishment of her era.
This is not to say that all the other actors were not brilliant, because they were. However, I was less convinced about the actual characterization of the Holmes brothers. Mycroft is portrayed as almost the villain of the story, who wants to limit Enola’s freedom and ensure that she does what society expects of her. For Mycroft, Enola is more an inconvenience than a family member. Sam Claflin portrays this side of Mycroft spectacularly, but I can’t help but wonder how much of that is accurate to Ser Arthur Conan Doyle’s character.
A similar debate has been created surrounding Henry Cavill’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. The Arthur Conan Doyle Estate has famously tried to sue the movie claiming that the character portrayed in the movie shows too many emotions and is too caring.
To summarize the legal situation, the Arthur Conan Doyle’s Estate still holds the rights to some of the Sherlock Holmes stories, specifically the last ones. They claimed that it is only in these last stories that Sherlock actually shows emotions and it is only in the latter ones that Holmes “became warmer” and “began to respect women”. This is not the first time that the Conan Doyle estate files a copyright claim against a Sherlock Holmes adaptation; the last one was in 2015 following the release of the movie Mr Holmes.
Whether the movie has infringed copyright or not is still to be seen, but one thing is clear: Enola Holmes does show a very human side to Sherlock, one that viewers are not used to seeing. Whether this is just because he’s dealing with his little sister and still quite young himself (in comparison to his age in other adaptations), or he has not been properly represented is, in my opinion, open to personal interpretation.
Another one of the largest changes that were made on the script from the book series was the character’s ages. In the books, Enola is 14 years old but, in the movie, she is 16. This is not the first time that Hollywood deliberately ages up characters (see the unspeakable Percy Jackson movies), but, in this case, it was well-executed. And I think the key of this success is that the characters looked 16, and they acted like 16-year-olds. We have become so used to seeing 20-something-year-olds playing teenagers that we have seemed to have forgotten how young teenagers are, and how vulnerable. And this is something that Enola Holmes reminded me of.
Moreover, in relation to the character’s ages, I really liked how the movie sealed with the relationship between Enola and Viscount Tewksbury, the Marquess of Basilweather (Louis Patridge). They are barely out of childhood, and you can perfectly see that, while also being moved by the affection and budding attraction that they have for each other. This relationship allows Enola to learn that being alone doesn’t mean being lonely. Rather than the movie being a story of these two characters finding each other, the focus is on both of them (and particularly Enola) finding themselves and the life they want to live. It is a heart-warming relationship to watch, without any forced romanticism or attraction. A true rarity in current media.
The one thing that Enola Holmes falls short of, in my opinion, is the social justice element. Although it was a fun and entertaining movie to watch, it was also not one with revolutionary ideas.
An important part of the plot of the movie is the political movements that are happening at the time, especially in relation to the right to vote. However, while the Reform movement is seen as something revolutionary but positive (something that will change the world), the portrayal of the suffragettes lacks depth. It is understandable that a character like Mycroft would despise them and consider them dangerous. However, although Enola, by the end of the movie, seems to understand the purpose of the movement, these characters are still not given the chance to explain their reasoning and plans, and they are brushed off quite quickly.
At the end of the day, the suffragettes in Enola Holmes seem more a secret fighting club than an organized social justice movement.
Moreover, the movie also lacks a conclusion to Enola’s future. This might be to allow for a sequel, but it seems to undermine the whole point of the movie. Great, she is able to not go to back to boarding school but… what does she do instead? The movie does a great job explaining how hard it is for women to be in control of their lives at the time but doesn’t fully explain how Enola manages to escape it in a practical way.
A fascinating aspect that relates to this is the ending of the movie. The big plot twist that the villain ends up being a woman who clings to the traditional values and the idea of “England” and “morality” that she has been taught since birth, to the point of killing her own family, is surprising and quite fascinates me. It reminded me of the sad reality that women are often each other’s worst enemies, and the historical reality of women-led antifeminist movements such as the one portrayed in other shows like Mrs. America.
On the opposite end of this battle is Eudoria Holmes, Enola’s beloved mother. She is a member of this secret feminist fight club and so dedicated that she abandons her child in the pursuit of gender equality. At first glance, many would look at it this way, a selfish act. But as the matriach Holmes so heartbreakingly puts it to Enola: “I couldn’t bear to have this world be your future”. The movie brilliantly showcases not only the plight of womanhood in such an era, but the nuances of being a mother. While the unconditional motherly love stereotype is portrayed here, the movie also shows us that women are not all painted with the same brush as the older antagonist of the story would rather harm her children than sacrifice her ideals.
My favorite thing, however, was the more technical part. The movie played very well with the timeline, explaining Enola’s memories or her train of thought through dynamic animations, asides, and voiceovers. I also particularly loved how Enola kept breaking the fourth wall. At times this method broke the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule of writing but more often than not Enola’s explanations of the story and her sly smiles and shocked expressions made us feel as if we were her secret friend or the person she was telling the story to. And, to be honest, it makes sense. She has been alone all her life so she would naturally invent friends to tell stories to.
Enola Holmes is a very entertaining movie, with an introductory fast-paced rhythm that slows down a bit to allow breathing room to explore the charming characters a bit more and (at the heart of it all like in any Holmes’ tale) a fascinating mystery to solve. It’s the perfect combination of a set of characters that we all know and love, and a few new ones that bring a fresh perspective to the story and allow us to look at the Holmes brothers from a whole new perspective. It probably won’t change your views of the world, but it also doesn’t need to.
While you jump over to Netflix to watch it, I will be over here playing anagrams with my name. Maybe I’ll learn something new about myself!
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