Based on the first book in Nancy Springer’s YA Enola Holmes series—“The Case of the Missing Marquess” — about Sherlock Holmes’ precocious younger sister and the various mysteries she has to solve, Netflix’s movie adaptation of the inaugural book is an absolute delight. Charming and fleet-footed, with a dynamic sense of frisson and clever chutzpah, “Enola Holmes” is a compelling mystery and a sprightly adventure with a feminist streak that’s a perfect showcase for the winsome talents of “Stranger Things” star Millie Bobby Brown.
Directed by Emmy-winning “Fleabag” filmmaker Harry Bradbeer (also known for directing episodes of similarly whip-smart television like “Killing Eve” and “Ramy”), there’s a similarly brisk snap to the quick-witted tale. Bradbeer clearly learned much from working with alongside the comedy firecracker that is Phoebe Waller-Bridge and he applies much of the same sharp sensibilities to “Enola Holmes,” but with even more kinetic verve that the BBC/Amazon series would allow for— fourth wall breaks, cleverly dense montages, punctuated comedic editing, and the likes but on a bigger budget and scale.
As the young, effusive, and carefree Holmes explicates in the movie’s playful and stylish direct address opening and prologue, Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown), had an unusual upbringing thanks to her unusual and eccentric mother, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter). As the much younger sibling of the famous genius detective Sherlock Holmes, and the older, capitalist prig Mycroft (Sam Claflin), Eudoria decided on alternative homeschooling rather than sending her off to boarding school like the boys. Her curriculum is rambunctious and wild, to say the least, tennis in the house, games, fencing, puzzles, brain-teases, self-defense and combat, and a steady flow of voracious reading (cue a whimsical, but thankfully not obnoxious montage). Conundrums and enigmas are big in this family and Enola believes her name was always a curious anagram for “alone,” she has yet to understand the meaning of.
As Enola elucidates, on her 16th birthday, the teenager wakes up to discover that Eudoria has gone missing. “She was my whole world,” Enola explains wistfully. A woman of mystery too, Eudoria thought privacy was the highest virtue and the one Enola most frequently violated. Thus, a game of clues to decipher, motives to decode, and gifts to parse, becomes afoot.
However, before the scrutinizing of riddles can truly commence, Holmes suddenly finds herself under the care of her concerned brothers Sherlock (Cavill) and Mycroft (Claflin) who haven’t seen her in years. The kinder of the two brothers, Sherlock, is sympathetic to her unmoored situation, but the pompous fussbudget Mycroft is aghast that Enola is a wild child without the ladylike social graces of the modern age (she can’t embroider!). It should be off to finishing school for Enola (cue Fiona Shaw as a strict schoolmarm), but the rebellious, free-spirited teen has other ideas and soon finds embarks to find her mother, but becomes embroiled in an escapade rescuing a young handsome runaway Lord (a dashing Louis Partridge, who we will surely see more of) from a serious thrashing.
Two tales begin to fork alongside the train tracks of this adventure, one, the search for Eudoria, and the suffragette movement trouble she may have gotten herself into— a pursuit Sherlock intrudes upon— and a greater conspiracy involving the young Lord Tewksbury that revolves around an upcoming election and the reform act allowing women to vote. And as one might suspect, given the description, both stories dovetail thematically with the idea of strong female agency and independence, one of Eudoria’s great teachings about co-existing in a man’s world.
While “Enola Holmes” empowering feminist message might feel a little on the nose at times, the film, is nevertheless, a witty and endearing little bauble with terrific elan. Adapted by Jack Thorne (“This is England ’88,” and ‘’90’ and “The Scouting Book for Boys”), the writing is otherwise crisp and nimble, much like the film and Daniel Pemberton’s enthusiastic score, adds to the growing tally of captivating ingredients.
The actors fair well, too. Brown easily carries the film, has tremendous chemistry with everyone, and radiates appealing charisma— it’s no wonder Netflix hasn’t let her stray very far from their algorithm (she’s far more interesting here than “Stranger Things” ever allowed her to be). Cavill is yet another winning surprise. Often not quite convincing in his own acting skin, especially when playing an American, the British actor demonstrates just how effortless he is when playing cool, collected debonair gentlemen (truly, he and Brown, could make a career and mint solely starring in English period films if they chose, they are so perfect for it). Likewise, Claflin is often uncomfortably shoehorned into leading man roles, but free to be the smug, haughty, intolerant Mycroft, he is an absolute joy to watch.
The plot itself is perhaps not as involving as it should be (it bogs down slightly in the second half), but it’s rarely the point of the story, rather a device for Enola to shine, outwit her older sleuthing brother, and discover her true sense of self. Like the straightlaced constraints of corsets, dress, and the stuffy age of propriety, both Enola and the movie look to smash conventions whenever possible by taking the starch out of various obstacles and characters like the annoyingly punctilious Mycroft whose domineering patriarchy might as well be the film’s villain (that’s technically Burn Gorman as the thug hired to terminate the meddlesome young Holmes and Tewksbury).
“Enola Holmes” has an amusingly surprise twist that without spoiling here amounts to be careful about trusting status-quo-protecting older white woman in the middle of an election (zing!). But generally, what unfolds in its affection ending is the notion of one final heartening lesson from Eudoria to Enola. Aside from being loved and adored, she was never alone. Instead, Eudoria nurtured a spitfire who is independent, resourceful, skilled, and brilliant, a child any of us would be proud to tears to have raised. And perhaps as hokey as this may sound, it may bring a tear to the sentimental. If not, at least stirring great anticipation in those who would love to see the further adventures of this gifted and talented young adult. [B+]
“Enola Holmes” arrives on Netflix on September 23.