Well, this was an absolute delight to watch.
Enola Holmes is based on a series of YA novels by Nancy Springer, which I have not yet read so there will be no commentary on how the movie measures up to the page, but I can say with confidence that the movie version is bright, crisp, fanciful, and spirited. Do I dare say that it’s a fantastical feminist romp? I don’t know. Let me get back to you on that one.
Since she was a very young child, Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown, who is perfect in this role and, refreshingly, actually the same age as the character she plays) has been living alone and isolated with her mother (Helena Bonham Carter, also perfection, but I wish we had seen more of her). Her father is dead and her older brothers, Mycroft (Sam Claflin) and Sherlock (Henry Cavill) have gone off to live their lives elsewhere. Enola and her mother live a very happy and eccentric existence without societal norms (or whalebone corsets) squeezing all the joy out of life. Under her mother’s brilliant and careful tutelage, Enola reads the entirety of their extensive library, learns archery and self-defense, conducts explosive laboratory experiments, decodes ciphers, and so on. All of the finer, usually more prized, aspects of Victorian womanhood are cast aside and left to collect dust. That is until the morning of Enola’s sixteenth birthday when she wakes up to find her mother has disappeared in the night. She’s left behind a birthday gift for Enola, an apology, and a bunch of cryptic clues for her to unravel.
Soon enough, Mycroft and Sherlock show up to look down their noses at the ivy-covered house, the casual disarray, and Enola’s lack of refinement. Mycroft refers to Enola as “unbroken” and insists that she should be sent to finishing school, and Sherlock stands by mostly in aloof bemusement. But, before Miss Harrison (Fiona Shaw, delightfully awful in this role), who clearly has some perhaps not entirely refined, and definitely unrequited, feelings for Mycroft, can cart her off to have her rough edges sanded away, Enola runs away.
Once on the run she meets the Viscount Tewkesbury, Marquess of Basilwether (Louis Partridge), who is also on the run and being chased by a very nasty man (Burn Gorman) who is very interested in killing him dead. Tewkesbury, with foppish hair that gives him a Victorian boy-band vibe and upper crust-naivete, definitely needs the protection of young woman like Enola. Together they escape to London where they split up before being drawn back together so that Enola can once again save his ass.
As Enola, Millie Bobby Brown exudes competence and charm. She gleefully breaks the fourth wall in ways that feel giddy, magnetic, and never annoying. She pauses to tell us things, looks over her shoulder to share a look with us, and even slyly winks at us while being held face down in a barrel of water. Generally speaking, the whole concept of asides can get really old really fast, so it says a lot about Enola/Brown’s energy and appeal that I started to look forward to them with something like elated anticipation.
Like the one in the barrel of water—I knew it was coming (or at least I hoped it was coming)—and I still clapped with excitement (in my mind at least) when it happened. Really, the only time the movie seems to drag are the moments when she’s not on the screen. Is it a coincidence that those are also the times that only men are the screen? Probably not, my friends, probably not. I like to believe that it was by design that the men in the movie are only as interesting as Enola finds them to be. Tewkesbury, for example, only gains depth and nuance once Enola discovers more interesting aspects of his life and personality. And Mycroft and Sherlock are, rightfully in this case, pushed to the margins. A lot has been said about Henry Cavill as Sherlock, and he is surprisingly….strapped for Sherlock. His incredibly broad shoulders and bulging biceps do come as a shock, especially if you’re most recently visually accustomed to say, Buttercup Cumberbund, as Sherlock. Some people have said he also exudes more warmth than Sherlock usually does, but I’d disagree there since I think he only shows empathy toward Enola because he sees himself in her, which seems very on-brand for Sherlock.
But you know what? We’re not here to talk about the menfolk! Aside from Enola, my favorite character—and a big reason I hope there is at least another movie in the works—is Edith Grayson (Susan Wokoma, who is also fantastic in the series Chewing Gum), a martial arts instructor, tea shop owner, and London contact for Enola’s mother. (She, along with Lastrade (Adeel Akhtar) and a few others, add some much-welcome diversity to the cast.) She only appears in a few scenes, but she’s absolutely fascinating. I especially loved when she said to Sherlock, with a sneer of derision, “You don’t know what it is to be without power.” And that’s another thing that the movie manages to do without losing its buoyancy: to talk about the dynamics of power, of making personal sacrifices for the greater good, of women working collectively to guarantee a better future for their daughters, and of the personal being deeply political.
With all that going on, I didn’t particularly notice or care whether the mysteries Enola is working to unravel were interesting or not. And, does it really matter as long as we get to watch Enola best a man twice her size in a back alley brawl, foil her followers with an array of disguises, use the lessons her mother taught her in order to forge her independence, and, certainly not least of all, outwit both her older brothers? It does not! And, honestly, I don’t know what you’re doing still reading this review when you could be hanging out with Enola Holmes!