Directed by: #HarryBradbeer
Written by: #JackThorne
With this year’s summer box office still in lockdown, Netflix has released yet another feature film to fill the theatre-going void for subscribers everywhere, this time with Harry Bradbeer’s adaptation of Enola Holmes. And where recent Netflix original titles Extraction and The Old Guard set about to shake us from our isolation slumber with pulse-pounding action and ear-drum-rattling gun-fire, Bradbeer attempts to calm some of those shot nerves with what is a playful, bright, and refreshing take on a largely worn-out intellectual property.
Based on Nancy Springer’s YA novel The Case of the Missing Marquess: An Enola Holmes Mystery (with an understandably reduced movie title), the film follows the young, fourth-wall-breaking sister of the famed Sherlock Holmes: Enola, played by Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown. The youngest Holmes represents all the positive attributes of her older brother Sherlock—who is played here by Henry Cavill—without as much of the anti-social “sleuthiness” we’ve come to expect from performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. in the ever-replicated role of the famed private detective. What this leaves audiences with is a quippy, kind-hearted character who—despite seeming more superhero than young genius—is an excellent guide through this whimsical interpretation of Victorian England.
We first meet our young heroine as she wildly bikes along a winding country road, hurtling towards the camera and instantly addressing the audience to establish what will be a constant line of conversation throughout the entire film. We discover that she has been brought up as a keen intellectual by her mother (Helena Bonham Carter) in their old ivy-encased manor home, away from her two largely absent older brothers Sherlock and Mycroft—both of whom left home years earlier to pursue fame and power in the bustling metropolitan city of London. However, she soon reveals that everything is not as it should be; days prior, on the verge of Enola’s sixteenth birthday, her mother disappeared, leaving but a few tokens of farewell in her wake. With this mystery to unravel, and the impending return of her two older brothers, it becomes increasingly clear that for young Enola, the game is well and truly afoot.
Overall, Bradbeer’s direction is succinct and heavily stylized, with great use of a “cut-out-vignette” type animation to add a level of whimsy and story-book narration to this already lighthearted romp. Scenery—be it gently sloping country hills or the tightly packed streets of London—is beautifully captured by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, with a landscape painter’s eye for sweeping settings and far reaching horizons. The intimacy created between Enola and her audience through the nearly constant breaking of the fourth-wall, and the tight framing of her head and shoulders, causes those moments of audience address to feel more like a personal Zoom-call to each watcher, rather than simply a general remark to camera.
This effect would not be nearly as successful without such a committed and joyful performance from the sixteen-year-old Bobby Brown, who carries the entire film atop her shoulders. Had her performance lacked the honesty which she delivers throughout all her scenes, this fourth-wall breaking could have easily become tiresome and over done. Instead, she is able to keep each remark fresh and original, demonstrating expert comedic timing as well as an ability to dictate the ebb and flow of most scenes. Cavill, Sam Claflin, and the great Bonham Carter all expertly lend dramatic weight to Enola’s eccentric family, while not stealing too much attention away from Bobby Brown’s performance. The sinister Burn Gorman (Torchwood, Game of Thrones) is perfectly menacing as the mostly silent, and certainly deadly thug who torments Enola and her young Marquess beau (played very capably by Louis Partridge).
The one apparent hindrance to the film’s overall success is that it seems to hold back slightly from answering all the questions that have been posed throughout its two-hour runtime. Given how this is a Netflix production, it’s more than likely that this is due to the studio’s wish to kindle a new, several-film franchise of young detective stories, attempting to leave some intrigue remaining for the movies yet to come. However, while this is absolutely understandable in terms of studio intention, it does nevertheless feel wrong to finish a story inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s work without deftly tying up any loose ends left unaddressed at the tale’s finale. It would be as if Poirot had gathered all his suspects together around some ornately decorated drawing room, only to have the credits roll before detailing everyone’s connection to the murder. While not strictly necessary, this lack of riddle-solving nevertheless takes a step back from the material it is inspired by.
All that said, Enola Holmes remains a fun, family-friendly adventure through the alarmingly sunny streets of 19th century London. With powerful undertones on the importance of individualism, fantastic messages on the strength of feminism, and the overall motif of being true to one’s self, Enola Holmes is a movie that is nearly impossible not to recommend. And with the resounding critical success the film has seen so far (92% on Rotten Tomatoes as of the publication of this review), audiences can likely expect another instalment to be fresh on the heels of the first.