So Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes had a sister. Who knew? Anybody who watched the fourth season of the BBC’s Sherlock. Her name was Eurus, she was a master of disguise, handy with a gun and a touch too friendly with Moriarty for comfort. A world away, then, from the much younger sister that, according to the latest from Netflix, was brought up by her mother in the absence of her two big brothers, who had long since departed to find more challenges for their impressive intellects. It’s just one of the joyful liberties that Enola Holmes takes with those classic stories from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Enola (Millie Bobby Brown) shares a country house with her unconventional mother (Helena Bonham Carter) until, on her 16th birthday, she wakes up to find herself alone. Mum has disappeared, which means the teenager has to put herself at the mercies of her two brothers, Mycroft (Sam Claflin) especially, who is technically her guardian. But she’s her mother’s daughter – highly intelligent, spirited and resolutely independent – and, fighting against her brothers’ plans to send her to finishing school, she sets out to find her mother. She’s hardly set foot on the train to London when she meets the young Lord Tewksbury (Louis Partridge), whose reason for being there opens up an entirely new mystery.
Based on the first of Nancy Springer’s series of Enola Holmes novels, it’s apparent from the outset that this has the possibility of a series in the back of its mind. Not unusual for Netflix, but this time it has the young teenage and family audience in its sights, with what is essentially a ripping yarn, full of Victoriana, touches of Dickens and solid adventures with an engaging heroine at its heart. Conan Doyle fans might, however, take exception with the way it plays fast and loose with that most famous of super sleuths. Certainly, Sherlock (Henry Cavill) has a presence, but he’s softer and more sympathetic than any other Holmes we’ve ever seen. There’s no Watson – that role seems to have been taken over by the grumpy Mycroft – and only Inspector Lestrade (Adeel Akhtar) comes close to being the character we all know. Not that it matters overmuch, because this isn’t a film aimed at the purists. It’s family entertainment, pure and simple.
On that level, it’s agreeably fresh and lively, with Enola regularly breaking the fourth wall to talk to the audience and some witty graphics linking up the various instalments of the story. In truth, the narrative is a touch too long and convoluted – the film runs for over two hours – to the extent that one of its major components is almost forgotten as the film draws to a conclusion and the hurried resolution feels like a bolt-on. It’s appealing to look at, even if there are moments when it looks like corners have been cut, but the film’s main attraction is its predominantly British cast. Millie Bobby Brown is very much at home away from Hawkins, clearly enjoying taking centre stage, and there’s a smattering of classy character actors to relish, including Frances De La Tour, David Bamber and Burn Gorman as a silent assassin. But its biggest names feel under-used: Bonham Carter appears mainly in flashbacks, Cavill only has a handful of scenes, so his Sherlock never really develops and Claflin isn’t given enough time to be much more than just bad-tempered.
For all its shortcomings, however, meeting Enola Holmes is pleasant fun, apparently old fashioned on the outside but with a strong contemporary thread that will resonate easily with younger members of the audience. Whether it will follow in the wake of Extraction, which already has a sequel in the works, remains to be seen. If it does, it’ll be yet another instance of the streaming service spreading its reach even further and making inroads into genres that, only a few years ago, seemed a long way from figuring on the Netflix Originals schedule.
Adventure, Drama, Family | Cert: 12 | Netflix | 23 September 2020 | Dir. Harry Bradbeer | Millie Bobby Brown, Henry Cavill, Sam Claflin, Helena Bonham Carter, Fiona Shaw, Louis Partridge, Adeel Akhtar.