Review: ‘Enola Holmes’ offers fresh, female-focused take on Sherlock Holmes

by Paulina Marinkovic | 10/15/20 2:00am

enola-holmes-lila-hovey
by Lila Hovey / The Dartmouth Staff

“Enola Holmes” — one of the newest entries to Netflix’s catalog, based on the young adult series by Nancy Springer — is a fun, adventurous and action-packed film that brilliantly reinvents the Sherlock Holmes franchise. Directed by Harry Bradbeer and written by Jack Thorne, “Enola Holmes” centers on the life of the youngest Holmes sibling, Enola (Millie Bobby Brown), and her journey to reunite with her missing mother while forging her own sense of freedom. While the film contains some elements of the classic Holmes mysteries, it adds a new twist with its focus on social activism and female intellect. From start to finish, the film successfully creates a world that places a strong-willed heroine center-stage, offering a timeless lesson on female empowerment.

Enola, whose peculiar name is “alone” spelled backwards, is raised to be independent by her single, open-minded mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter). Enola, rejecting a domestic lifestyle, is not interested in behaving like a proper lady. Instead, she spends her days being home-schooled by Eudoria in literature, history, science and — most importantly — jiu-jitsu.

The main conflict of the film unfolds after Enola’s life takes an unexpected turn. On her 16th birthday, Enola awakens to the news of her mother’s sudden disappearance. Now parentless, Enola is forced to reunite with her brothers Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin) after 10 years. Unlike the progressive Holmes matriarch, Sherlock and Mycroft are unwilling to break from tradition and decide to send their younger sister off to boarding school, where she is expected to learn to become a proper Victorian lady.

Following her mother’s advice to not be “thrown off course by other people — especially men,” Enola refuses to succumb to her brothers’ plan. After finding a set of clues left behind by her mother, Enola, skilled in deciphering codes and word puzzles, vows to solve the mystery of her mother’s inexplicable disappearance.

Roaming the streets of London, Enola stumbles upon a different mystery: the attempted murder of young Viscount Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge). The film continues to challenge gender roles through its merging storylines, as Enola has to consistently save Viscount Tewkesbury from the mysterious villain Linthorn (Burn Gorman) by using her jiu-jitsu skills and creating chemical explosions.  

Throughout their journey, Enola and Viscount Tewkesbury quickly grow fond of each other and develop a close bond. And although this relationship has a hint of romance, it never overshadows the main focus of the storyline. Bradbeer’s stereotype-subverting message about not needing a knight in shining armor to save the day is very clear; the film proves that women are just as capable — if not more so — than men, who are actually granted the freedom to choose their paths in 19th century British society.

Through recurrent feminist themes and a strong female lead, Bradbeer provides an unfiltered portrayal of a norm-defying young woman in the 19th century. While several directors have attempted to re-envision period pieces as modernized action films, Bradbeer excels in his depiction of a young heroine, committing to the right balance between Enola’s playfulness and ferocity.

The creative narration — specifically Enola’s humorous, fourth-wall breaking asides — contributes to the protagonist’s chaotic yet likable personality. While many narratives with female leads often fall into cliches, Enola Holmes is shown to be multifaceted; she is ferocious and physically capable in combat, but she does not shy away from showing hints of self-doubt and naivete. After all, she is just 16 years old.

The mystery storyline in “Enola Holmes” may at times feel secondary and simplistic when compared to the usual, complex Sherlock films, as it mainly centers on Enola’s coming-of-age. However, this twist reveals a more progressive and empathetic side to the franchise in contrast to the calculating and sophisticated portrayals of Sherlock in the past.

“Enola Holmes” also introduces a new focus on social activism, commenting on institutionalized inequality throughout the storyline. While Enola continues her search for her mother and tackles a new mystery case in the process, she becomes entangled in England’s own battle toward equality through efforts to pass women’s suffrage legislation. Through her involvement in the suffrage movement, Enola is not only able to develop as a detective, but also grows in confidence and strength to fight for herself and for those who are unable to do so. 

While “Enola Holmes” is a film about a young woman’s journey to independence, it touches on deeper issues of women’s rights and the imbalance of power between the sexes, offering a fresh take on the familiar detective story. 

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