Whatever faults Netflix’s Sherlock Holmes spinoff Enola Holmes might have, the performance at its center shines so brightly that they fade away even as they’re being registered. As the titular character, Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown constantly turns to the camera to address the audience, letting them in on the frustrations she can’t share with the rest of the world, and nominally inviting viewers to participate in her schemes. The schtick, run into the ground by Deadpool, should get annoying fast. But in Brown’s hands, it never does.
The film, directed by Harry Bradbeer and adapted from a book series by Nancy Springer, centers around Enola, the younger sister of Mycroft (Sam Clafin) and Sherlock Holmes (Henry Cavill). Enola lives in the family home with their mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter). Together, they play sports, practice martial arts, engage in strategy games, and generally do everything that women in the Victorian Era aren’t supposed to do. When Eudoria disappears without a trace, Enola’s world is turned upside down, as Mycroft, now her guardian, takes umbrage with her upbringing thus far and tries to commit her to a finishing school. Horrified by the idea, Enola runs away, but on her quest to find her mother, gets caught up in a different mystery.
The plots Enola has to unravel are ultimately fairly simple. The joy in the film is less about watching her figure things out, and more in the unfolding character dynamics. The entire cast is packed with big, cartoonish personalities, from a headmistress who seems almost erotically thrilled by etiquette (Fiona Shaw) to Viscount Lord Tewksbury (Louis Partridge), a foppish young man with a fondness for flowers and vegetation, whose apparent cluelessness seems to make him Enola’s opposite. Even Sherlock and Mycroft have been turned into novel, exaggerated versions of themselves. Mycroft is a stick in the mud who lacks the family’s trademark smarts, and Sherlock is much burlier and friendlier than most (if not all) of his previous iterations. (Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate actually filed a lawsuit against Netflix for this warmer, more human characterization.)
While Sherlock isn’t instantly recognizable, Cavill is at least appealing, and Enola Holmes is, per the title, Enola’s story. If anything, the fact that Sherlock plays a relatively minor role is for the best. And Brown, best known as Stranger Things’ mostly mute psychic Eleven, is finally given a chance to show off the bubblier side of her star power. She seems to be drawing from a bottomless well of energy, balancing cheekiness with self-awareness and still managing to make the few moments where Enola is truly emotionally distraught land convincingly.
She also pulls off the film’s central romance without tripping over how suddenly it seems to develop, as Enola becomes attached to Tewksbury before she knows it, and winds up compelled to figure out who’s sent a thug (Burn Gorman) to kill him, and why. They have a winning rapport, which makes the most of the way Tewksbury’s interests are more stereotypically feminine while Enola’s are more stereotypically masculine. And Partridge, who resembles a fey third Sprouse sibling, holds his own well enough against Brown.
But Enola Holmes falls short in its depiction of “girl power.” The overall message that Enola draws from her adventures, about how her future is in her own hands, is commendable, but overly broad. Enola’s refusal to conform to Victorian standards comes at the cost of belittling everyone who does. All of the other students at her finishing school are mean girls, and the one character who seems to understand Enola without being similarly rebellious is ultimately exposed as a villain. Every female character must prove her worth by being able to fight or being otherwise tomboyish in some way; there’s no room for anyone who would choose a more traditionally feminine lifestyle.
Still, Enola Holmes is a terrific vehicle for star and producer Millie Bobby Brown — it seems consciously designed to unleash her full talents. It should come as no surprise, that the ending of the film leaves the door open for an Enola series, especially given that there are six Enola Holmes books so far. The match of material and star works so well that the story’s relative simplicity and undercooked quality aren’t too much of a stumbling block. It’s a perfect next step for Brown, and hopefully a sign of greater things to come.
Enola Holmes is streaming on Netflix now.