Film Review: Enola Holmes
By Hector DeJeanOctober 2, 2020
Join Hector DeJean as he reviews the film and checks in with a few Sherlockian scholars to look deeper into the character of Eudoria Holmes. Minor spoilers ahead—Enola Holmes is streaming on Netflix now—watch and enjoy!
Sherlock Holmes was, is, and likely will remain a solid fuel source for the entertainment industry, and the very latest offering is the Netflix film Enola Holmes, based on the Edgar Award-nominated YA series by Nancy Springer. Millie Bobby Brown, who launched her career playing Eleven on Stranger Things, dives into the part of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes’ younger sister, and the results are well worth watching. It’s a gorgeous, big-budget production sharing some elements with other Holmes and Holmes-adjacent productions (a rambling country manor house, a chase onboard a steam train, a conspiracy with ties to the Victorian government, etc.) with characterizations that occasionally adhere to and sometimes diverge from the Holmes canon. It also raises some very interesting questions about Sherlock Holmes’ parentage, and shows that there still remain aspects of the Great Detective that have yet to be explored by inventive storytellers.
Enola Holmes is raised by her unconventional mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) on the rural estate where, over a decade prior, Sherlock himself grew up. Eudoria is far more interested in her daughter growing up to be an adventurous polymath than a proper young Victorian lady, and together the mother and daughter spar, paint, wear disguises, play indoor tennis, mix explosives, and devour the house’s library. When Eudoria suddenly goes missing, Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin) both pay a visit, letting Enola know that it’s time for her to head to a boarding school and learn how to behave correctly. Enola, of course, is having none of it and instead runs off to find what happened to her mother, planting a false trail to mislead her observant brothers.
On the train to London she meets the dashing young Viscount Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), and also confronts a man trying to send Tewkesbury on a long dirt nap. When she finally reaches London, she encounters the assassin again, and realizes that the youthful viscount might be in even more trouble than her missing mother.
The era was a time in which many people in England found themselves as suddenly having a voice in the government, where before they had been locked out.
The twin mysteries—Enola’s missing mother and the attempts on Tewkesbury’s life, are pretty basic as far as mysteries go, and solving them seems to take more energy than cogitation. Enola frequently breaks the fourth wall, at times talking directly to the audience, or just looking at the camera and raising an eyebrow, letting us know that we don’t need to take any of this too seriously. However there is an important matter at the heart of both puzzles, and it gives the film a solid reason to exist: While the Victorians are often regarded as the ultimate conservatives (Mycroft here is an embodiment of that stereotype), the era was a time in which many people in England found themselves as suddenly having a voice in the government, where before they had been locked out. Women couldn’t vote until after World War I, but the path that led to their inclusion in the voting process began at the height of Queen Victoria’s reign.
We learn early on that Eudoria’s disappearance has something to do with the women’s suffrage movement (Mycroft, seeing a book at his vanished mother’s bedside, sneers “Oh good God. Feminism.”) and we learn that a reform bill is coming to a vote. But the stakes in this story aren’t necessarily the future of equality in England; the battle at the heart of the movie is Enola’s combat with her society’s, and her oldest brother’s, attempts to mold her into a correct young lady, one appropriately concerned with becoming a dutiful wife, and setting aside such ridiculous concerns as deciding one’s own career, managing one’s own finances, and voting as one wishes. Viewers clearly know who they should be rooting for. (If you don’t, then you are presumably a nominee for the U. S. Supreme Court.)
All of this would be pleasant and trite, but several factors push it into impressive territory, the most important being the lead. Even with her asides to the camera, Brown is a terrific and charismatic actor, and her enthusiasm for such Sherlockian activities as disguise, code breaking, and investigation are infectious. She shoulders the unjust expectations of her society with a righteous, wounded contempt, and her scenes with Tewkesbury, who she finds endearing despite herself, are a lot of fun—it helps that Louis Partridge is a perfect onscreen match for her.
Another great piece of casting is Henry Cavill as Sherlock himself. With his careful line delivery, his heavy contemplative brow, and his imposing profile, Cavill fits the bill as an heir to Basil Rathbone, and he does a good job as an older brother who grows increasingly appreciative of his sister’s skills. My only complaint is Cavill’s build—he has yet to shed the broad shoulders he put on as a superhero, and he looks positively stuffed into his bursting-at-the-seams Victorian suits. Cavill would make an excellent lead in a Holmes-and-Watson film, if future productions of The Witcher and Superman get axed and he finds himself with some free time.
Sam Claflin’s Mycroft, though, is a real disappointment. Gone is the stout, observant brainiac whose powers of deduction dwarf Sherlock’s own. Instead we get an awful, unlikeable stick-in-the-mud who never notices a single clue—instead of out-detectiving his brother, this Mycroft walks right past clues that Sherlock has to explain to him—and who at one point even yells at his sister, a move that his fellow Diogenes Club members would regard with absolute horror. Claflin doesn’t seem to be playing Mycroft as much as he’s impersonating Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, a mustached, occasionally volatile man who had little regard for the women’s suffrage movement or for women in general.
So how does the excellent actor Helena Bonham Carter rate as Eudoria Holmes? Does she fit with the version of the character described by Doyle? In fact, Doyle never gave us a picture of her, and neither Sherlock nor Mycroft has anything to say about her in the original stories—she isn’t even named. Carter is originating the character, and in making Eudoria such a memorable mentor for Enola, she poses a very interesting question: Did Eudoria also raise her son Sherlock the same way—mixing chemicals, donning disguises, and flouting convention? Was the Great Detective a product of his brash mother’s disdain for Victorian norms?
Since Doyle has nothing to say on this matter, we have to seek other guides; one literary sleuth is author Leonard Goldberg, who has written about Sherlock’s extended family in his Joanna Blalock series, the most recent of them being The Art of Deception, available wherever quality books are sold. Goldberg points out that, according to Doyle, we know more about Sherlock’s grandmother than his mother—and we only know one single thing about her, that she was a sister of one of the three French painters to bear the name Vernet. Nancy Springer acknowledges the relationship by making Vernet Eudoria’s middle name.
The only other author I can think of who wrote about the effect Holmes’ mother had on his career is Nicholas Meyer, author of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution as well as the excellent mystery The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols, also available from Minotaur Books wherever quality books are sold. Meyer’s first book had Holmes revealing to Sigmund Freud that his mother had cheated on his father with Sherlock’s own math tutor, a professor named Moriarty. Meyer gets away with this version of events because it disputes nothing in Doyle’s stories, and even explains Holmes’ mistrust of women and his sexual ambivalence.
Meyer supports the idea that Sherlock was not set on the path of a detective career by his mother. Sherlock bears many similarities with his creator, but in at least one critical area, the character and his scribe were entirely distinct. Doyle, according to Meyer, had a mother who made her will very much known. Meyer comments that “Both men were offered knighthoods in the same year. Doyle wanted to turn his down (he thought he’d be seen thereafter as an establishment patsy), but he accepted at the insistence of his mother, Mary (known always as “the ma’am”), who said to decline it would be to insult the queen. Holmes, on the contrary, turns his knighthood down without hesitation – and not a word about any f***ing mother!“ The ma’am also insisted that her son continue writing Holmes stories past the point where he was done with the character. For Doyle, Sherlock was an escape—he was the guy who DIDN’T have to obey an overbearing mother or wife. He was his own man, having honed his skills and chosen his vocation without any assistance, maternal or otherwise.
Fair enough; even in Enola Holmes, Sherlock admits that his mother was impressive and unconventional, but he’s also surprised by her activism and her tutelage of Enola. Mycroft asserts that Eudoria didn’t have any interests that he knew of, and there are other signs that Eudoria raised Enola very differently than she raised her sons. So, from this film, can we deduce why Eudoria had such different regimens for her children?
The movie says almost outright that Eudoria wanted Enola to become an activist, but at the same time she didn’t want to force Enola into a fixed track, because that would have been just as bad as demanding her to act like a proper lady. There’s another idea that doesn’t clash with anything in the film, that maybe Eudoria saw what her second son was accomplishing in the world, and wanted to prepare her daughter to be a kind of co-equal, to join Sherlock as a colleague in what might become the family business.
In any case, that’s the path Enola takes. Millie Bobby Brown ends the movie telling the audience that, like her brother, she will be a detective, which hopefully means a series of these movies. At the very least, I would really enjoy seeing how her relationship with Tewkesbury plays out.