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‘Enola Holmes’ Review: Detecting a Novel Heroine

Millie Bobby Brown shines as Sherlock’s teenage sister on a quest to find their missing mother.
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By
Joe Morgenstern
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Sept. 24, 2020 3:40 pm ET

The great attraction in “Enola Holmes,” streaming on Netflix, is Millie Bobby Brown in the title role of Sherlock Holmes’s teenage sister. Enola is much younger than Sherlock (Henry Cavill), certainly quicker and maybe smarter. She seems smarter than everyone except her mother, Eudoria, who is played by Helena Bonham Carter. Smart is a risky thing for a young Victorian woman to be, but Enola wears her precocity well because of Ms. Brown’s vivacity, drollery and, above all, her almost eerie skill. Four years ago, at age 12, she appeared in the TV series “Stranger Things” as Eleven, the near-silent, mysteriously intense girl with close-cropped hair and psychokinetic powers. Here her hyperverbal character is all about female empowerment, yet there’s never the slightest whiff of preachment. She’s the bright, sustaining spirit of a film that surrounds her with a fine cast and lovely trappings in a pleasantly twisty detective story that’s elevated by the exuberance of Enola’s detecting.

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Enola spelled backward is “alone,” she is quick to tell us; she also tells us not to make too much of it. (That’s two of many things she confides to the camera in the sort of direct-address mode that can be an annoying contrivance unless done as unaffectedly as Ms. Brown does it.) Enola hasn’t felt alone until recently. She’s lived happily with her brilliant, progressive-minded mother in the least stately of English mansions, alive to the feminist emphasis of her home schooling. (The film, set in 1884, was directed by Harry Bradbeer from Jack Thorne’s adaptation of the book series by Nancy Springer.)

When her mother goes missing, though, Enola’s older brother and legal guardian, Mycroft (Sam Claflin), returns home with Sherlock to organize a proper upbringing for the kid sister they haven’t seen in years. “She’s unbroken,” Mycroft tells the intended instrument of his enforcement, a schoolmistress, Miss Harrison, played with sly malevolence by Fiona Shaw: “A wild and dangerous woman brought up a wild child.” That’s enough for Enola. She flees the house to track her mother down, then finds herself caught up in a conspiracy swirling around another kid on the run, Louis Partridge’s Lord Tewksbury.

Millie Bobby Brown Photo: LEGENDARY/Netflix

One benefit of the fragmented flashback structure is that we keep getting hints of what zestful fun the mother-daughter relationship has been: “Don’t be thrown off course by other people,” Eudoria advises Enola, “especially men.” We don’t see as much of Ms. Bonham Carter as we might prefer, but that’s all right. She’s terrific in every one of her scenes, and pleasure can be intensified when it’s in short supply.

“Enola Holmes” provides plenty of visual pleasures: cleverly animated steel engravings; elaborately coded messages to her mother that Enola places in newspapers; gorgeous trains, locomotives and horseless carriages, all photographed lustrously by Giles Nuttgens; the lilt and bustle of chockablock London in a stylish production designed by Michael Carlin. (In one striking shot of the Thames at low tide, the Houses of Parliament stand resplendent in the sun on the far embankment.)

The story loses its momentum and clarity toward the end, but that’s all right too, since so many interesting discussions and strong performances enliven the journey. At one point Enola’s search takes her to an attic above a tearoom in East London where women are learning jujitsu from a teacher, Edith (Susan Wokoma), whose expertise in martial arts is matched by her erudition in core issues of the suffragette movement. Confronted later by Enola’s famous detective brother, Edith speaks eloquently of what it’s like for women to be without power, and of the promise of reform that is newly in the air.

Henry Cavill, Sam Claflin and Millie Bobby Brown Photo: LEGENDARY/Netflix

Sherlock is moved by what she says, as well he might be. It’s worth noting, however, that the Conan Doyle estate has sued Netflix over the film, claiming for intricate legal reasons that copyright has been violated by depicting Sherlock Holmes as having emotions. It’s also worth noting that Mr. Cavill, who played Superman in Hollywood action spectaculars, reveals Sherlock’s emotions ever so subtly—not, one assumes, for fear of criminal exposure, but out of a desire to serve the specific needs of a secondary role.

What Ms. Brown does is harder to fathom. It’s not that she isn’t dynamic, witty, vulnerable or enchanting when the circumstances call for it, but that she’s only 16, in her first starring role, and she carries the whole production with evident ease. “Enola Holmes” was originally made for theatrical distribution, then consigned to streaming by the pandemic and subsequent theater closures. Yet the downsizing doesn’t seem to have affected the portrayal at the center of it all. Ms. Brown fills the home screen with a big-screen performance of commanding intimacy. That doesn’t violate any copyrights, only the laws of probability.

Write to Joe Morgenstern at joe.morgenstern@wsj.com

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Appeared in the September 25, 2020, print edition as '‘Enola Holmes’: Detecting a Novel Heroine.'

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