There is always room for another plucky girl hero on film, and Millie Bobby Brown is delightfully charming in the title role of Enola Holmes. But what could be a fun, clever, and inventive beginning to a new franchise is, instead, an overlong story of under-developed side characters and unspecific political intrigue.
The much younger sister of Mycroft (Sam Claflin) and Sherlock (Henry Cavill), Enola has spent all her life in the happy company of her free-spirited mother, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) at their country manor. But on the morning of her sixteenth birthday, she wakes to discover her mother has disappeared. She is apparently sad about this, although the discovery almost immediately cuts to some days later when her brothers return from London after many years away. So many years, in fact, that they do not recognize their little sister when she meets them at the train station. Through it all, Enola gleefully chatters to the audience in a steady stream of fourth-wall-breaking narration, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly how she really feels about the sudden turn her life has taken.
Mycroft is the oddly angry eldest son and heir and uses his position to arrange to send Enola, now his ward, to finishing school. Sherlock, the famous detective, isn’t sold on the idea but also doesn’t try to stop it from happening. And thus, Sherlock becomes both the most recognizable and the most useless character in the story. The pair could have made interesting foils for Enola, but Mycroft is so unnecessarily mean and Sherlock so disconnected that whatever was intended for them is, apparently, left for future sequels to explore. For a film as light-hearted and optimistic as this, Claflin’s antagonist is so dark and villainous as to feel like he belongs in a different movie altogether.
Based on Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes Mysteries series, and specifically the first book, The Case of the Missing Marquess, the adaptation is set in 1884, when England is on the cusp of major, again unspecified, reforms. There is a clear divide between the old ways and the new. Enola grew up playing ball in the house and getting dirt under her nails, and learning martial arts. Mycroft wants to force those things out of her by sending her into the capable hands of the unsmiling headmistress, Miss Harrison (Fiona Shaw). Their mother, Eudoria, and her friends, on the other hand, are unapologetically feminist and fighting for equality and progress.
That fight for progress rests partially in the hands of the new Lord Tewksbury, Marquess of Basilwether (Louis Partridge), a young man who ran away from home rather than take his rightful place in the House of Lords. Enola’s first encounter with him is by chance when she also runs away after finding a hidden message from her mother and determining to go off to London to find her. Later, Enola and Tewksbury cross paths again by very convenient coincidence. Though drawn to him, Enola is initially eager to push him away. But when her search for her mother causes her to stumble onto a much bigger plot involving the Marquess, she uses the skills she shares with her famous detective brother and sets out to solve a much more pressing mystery.
Harry Bradbeer has undoubtedly proven his ability to direct stories about feisty, outspoken ladies who like to keep the audience involved. He brings along the touch that made him an Emmy winner on Fleabag and, for the most part, crafts a film that is lively, ambitious, and bold. But at just over two hours, and with unnecessarily repetitive reminders of basic things (Enola is “alone” spelled backward; her mother is obsessed with word games; Sherlock is a world-class detective), the film often loses its focus and veers a bit into tedium.
This is exacerbated by Jack Thorne‘s script, which simultaneously tries to do too much and not enough. There is plenty of his signature wit, but too much story to fit into one movie. Enola Holmes is a commentary on feminism and gender roles, and a missing persons story, and a family drama, and also a political thriller and a romantic comedy and a hero origin story. And while it’s great to see Susan Wokoma and Adeel Akhtar among the cast, it’s weird to pretend racism didn’t exist in a movie about inequality, progress, and reform. It ends up being a messy jumble wrapped up with a too-tidy bow.
Enola Holmes isn’t a disaster. It has enough heart and humor to be a pleasant enough experience, particularly with Consolata Boyle‘s gorgeous costume design and Daniel Pemberton‘s jaunty score. But it could have been so much more by being just a little bit less.