5 out of 5
Directed by: Harry Bradbeer
Truly delightful. I don’t mind films that take a viewing or two to determine one’s feelings towards, or movies that ask for an investment of time before you’re immersed, or even movies that really don’t care about your opinion as long as you’re entertained – all have their place in a viewing “lexicon.” But: it’s always refreshing when something springs out of the gates fully formed, wholly confident in its style and tone, and you know right away whether or not it’s for you. And Enola Holmes, based on the first of a series of young adult books by prolific author Nancy Springer, was very much for me, right from its first scenes onward. Which can be different from saying that I put a 100% stamp of approval on every element, as some of the movie’s transitions and visualizations of our Enola Holmes’ – Sherlock’s younger sister, played by Millie Bobbie Brown – mind at work are a bit overly stylized for my tastes, and the fourth wall breaking talking-to-the-camera shtick can be a tiresome one, but: just as a favorite teacher can present the driest of information in an engaging manner, a good film (and actors) can render these same techniques… well, delightful.
Enola tells it to us from the start: she’s been raised very freely by her mother (Helena Bonham Carter), where “freely” not only means encouragement to read every book in the library and participate in tense chess games and science experiments, but also martial arts training and sports like tennis – inside the house, the ball caroming off statues and paintings – all from a young age. And now, on her sixteenth birthday, her mother having disappeared, she’s biking to the train station to meet her brothers, Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin), neither of whom she’s seen since a child. Sherlock clocks Enola’s clear intelligence and ingenuity; Mycroft only sees an “improper” young lady, and deems next steps as enrolling her in a finishing school while Sherlock tracks down their mother. But this won’t do. Enola set off on her own to track down mom, and kicks our adventure into motion, with Enola’s pursuit crisscrossing with the headline grabbing disappearance of the young Marquess of Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge).
And so we have a coming-of-age story for Enola, a light romance between her and the Marquess, a gender study and commentary, and a tried and true mystery, but all balanced so that we’re never dawdling in the stereotypical beats of any of these genres, and so that everything logically intertwines and flows and satisfies, immensely, by film’s end.
The casting of Millie Bobbie Brown could be seen as Netflix nepotism, given her part in Stranger Things, but she absolutely owns and inhabits the role of Enola. The character is a marvel, and all of those fourth-wall breaking winks to the camera would not have worked without Brown’s navigation through the emotional juggling the role requires. She’s also hilarious, with effortless comic timing, and then equally believable in the tenser action moments. Which is also where the story and direction shines, as this “young adult” story never feels like it’s pandering to kids: the subject matter and the way it’s handled are mature; there are actual stakes at play – and the scuffles are quite rough – and the general pitting of youth vs. adults also avoids the kind of fun, but unrealistic reveling generally present in films / shows / books that submit to it. It is fun, mind you – when Enola bests Sherlock on several mysteries it creates instant smiles – it’s more that it feels in the spirit of the story, and character growth, giving it a tonal sense of maturity that lesser flicks would lack. This goes back to excellent casting, as well: Cavill plays Holmes as a perfect counterpoint, befuddled by his dawning awareness of his own prejudices regarding women vs. men, but then challenged and pleased by accepting Enola as something of an equal. Also noteworthy is Louis Partridge’s Tewkesbury: it’d be easy to play the part as the charming would-be-suitor, and Partridge does that, but once again, with grounding and earnestness that makes him a real person, and one capable of showing emotion.
I desperately want this to become a series, but I also don’t want there to be diminishing returns. Enola Holmes is an amazing story: wonderful characters, a wholly intriguing plot on its own terms, and then a great achievement in how it presents and balances its thoughts on gender, as naturalistic extensions of those characters and that plot. I want everyone to watch this movie, and I want to watch it with them each time.