Incredibly bright and gifted, schooled in forensic sciences and martial arts, Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown) has had a most unconventional upbringing for a sixteen year old girl in Victorian England. Thanks to her equally unconventional mother (Helena Bonham Carter). However when Enola’s mother disappears in mysterious circumstances she winds up in the reluctant care of her hitherto estranged older brothers: self-serving Mycroft (Sam Claflin) and legendary detective Sherlock Holmes (Henry Cavill). Keen to curb Enola's spirited ways, Mycroft looks to imprison her at a school for proper young ladies. Naturally Enola is having none of that. She immediately sets out to locate her missing mum which unexpectedly draws her into a far deadlier mystery.
Precociously talented Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown co-produced this vehicle for herself which also sees Henry Cavill take a leaf out of Robert Downey Jr.’s playbook by following his role as an iconic superhero with a stab at the celebrated Baker Street sleuth. Instead of a story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Enola Holmes adapts the first book in a young adult fiction series penned by Nancy Springer, envisioning a kid sister for Sherlock radically different from the incarnation presented in the modernized BBC television series starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Sort of a more serious Y.A. version of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975), Enola Holmes has a winning energy to it, quite unlike other Y.A. adaptations (or indeed period pieces), foregrounding pop-up book visuals, staccato editing and fourth wall-breaking humour. In lesser hands such stylistic quirks could well prove grating. However Fleabag director Harry Bradbeer fashions a highly amiable all-ages romp, eye-catching, laden with storybook charm and buoyed by an ebullient performance from Miss Brown as spirited proto-feminist Enola.
Laden with lines like "Paint your own picture, don't be thrown off course by other people... especially men", Jack Thorne's screenplay is upfront in its girl power ideals in a way likely to rankle many an overly sensitive internet troll. While the mystery is compelling and well developed, albeit with stakes kept unclear a little too long, it is ultimately less important to the story than Enola’s journey towards self-empowerment. A journey that sees her run headfirst into a brick wall of Victorian misogyny and double standards as embodied by the callous and calculating Mycroft and to a lesser extent Sherlock. Indeed while the film spotlights Sherlock's devotion to fighting social injustice it rather cleverly also chides the great detective for upholding establishment values and all the inequalities therein. Nevertheless Cavill humanizes Sherlock Holmes with a subtle, controlled empathy closer to Christopher Plummer's underrated portrayal in Murder By Decree (1979) while the script hits on an interesting psychological rationale for him wanting the world and all its imperfections to stay exactly as it is.
In an amusing break from convention it is Brown's young male co-star (Louis Partridge, proving a worthy and personable foil) that essays the role of damsel in distress. However the film wisely resists the temptation to make Enola an invincible superhero. As skilled and ingenuous as she is we never lose sight of the fact she is a vulnerable sixteen year old thrust into one dangerous situation after another. Enola challenges Sherlock's coldly logical demeanour but also learns from him. Bradbeer's skillful direction renders the art of deduction a tactile, sensual process without tipping overboard into the flashy Matrix influenced tomfoolery of the Guy Ritchie-Robert Downey Jr. films. For all its cinematic pizzazz though, Enola Holmes stays admirably on point stressing a message that society cannot subdue the individual likely to strike a chord with bright, spirited young women (and boys) the world over.