Sherlock Holmes has been imagined and re-imagined with a profusion rarely seen in fiction. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal “consulting detective” has cracked cases across film, television and stage adaptations, in settings spanning the canonical 19th century and the modern day. Netflix’s “Enola Holmes” is the latest in this lengthy parade, casting Sherlock (Henry Cavill) as the distant celebrity sibling of the story’s protagonist — 16-year-old Enola, played with effervescent energy by Millie Bobby Brown.
Based on Nancy Springer’s young adult book series, “Enola Holmes” chronicles the youngest Holmes sibling’s first forays into sleuthing. In her opening voice-over, Enola tells us she’s spent her whole life at home with her free-spirited feminist mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter), relishing her independence while studying literature, physics and jiujitsu. When Eudoria suddenly disappears, Enola is left in the care of stuffy older brother Mycroft (Sam Claflin) and faced with the prospect of attending finishing school. Desperate for an out, Enola recovers secret messages left by her mother and promptly sets off for London in search of her; on the journey, she encounters runaway aristocrat Viscount Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge) and becomes entangled in a deadly political plot.
Much of the appeal of “Stranger Things,” Netflix’s most astronomical success, can be attributed to Brown’s endearing performance; here, the case is the same. As Enola, Brown embodies the quintessential young adult hero, full of warmth, wit and a spot-on sense of comedic timing. The role requires little more than a display of charisma, and Brown delivers, capably carrying the film even through its duller story beats. One of the film’s defining stylistic features is Enola’s repeated breaking of the fourth wall; director Harry Bradbeer obviously recycles his “Fleabag” repertoire, staging numerous addresses, cheeky glances and winks to the camera. It’s thanks to Brown’s performance that this device is not as tiresome as it could be.
The film’s supporting cast, particularly Claflin, Bonham Carter and Fiona Shaw as the finishing school’s austere headmistress, embody their characters with just the right amount of camp. It must be said, however, that Cavill as Sherlock is perhaps the biggest casting misstep of the year. Aside from his obvious beefiness (Doyle purists will crow that Sherlock is tall and rail-thin), Cavill’s performance does nothing to project the intelligence or coldness that other characters frequently cite him as having. Instead, his Sherlock offers wan, one-note good-naturedness that feels phoned in — Benedict Cumberbatch can rest assured his legacy remains untouched.
“Enola Holmes” is understandably billed as a mystery, but soon reveals itself as more of an adventure romp. The mixture of genres never quite coalesces. The film’s action sequences, such as an early train chase and some fisticuffs in the second act, offer some excitement — due in part to Daniel Pemberton’s delightfully whimsical score. But Enola’s “sleuthing” is limited to a few anagrams and a disappointing solution that’s so telegraphed even Dr. Watson would be able to see it coming. The story flits between a roster of subplots — Enola eluding her brothers, commiserating with budding love interest Tewkesbury, finding her mother — in a manner that’s pleasantly fast-paced but noticeably unfocused.
Jack Thorne’s screenplay clearly orbits empowerment as its central theme. Enola bristles when confronted with Victorian society’s expectations for women, the fight to pass a reform bill in Parliament underscores the story’s events and Enola’s discovery of her mother’s status as a radical suffragette becomes an all-too-brief point of conflict. However, in an apparent underestimation of the film’s target audience, incisive analysis of patriarchal norms is largely swapped for hollow, trite adages about girl power. One scene, wherein suffragette Edith (Susie Wokoma) sagely lectures Sherlock about his privilege, is a particular offender in this regard; Sherlock hardly shifts his political inclinations beyond his affection for his sister, and Edith plays a frustratingly negligible role in the overall narrative.
Still, the appeal of “Enola Holmes” is elementary. The film offers a well-constructed chipperness that will please most audiences, and it’s easy to deduce from the closing scene that there’s room for a sequel. Hopefully, future “Enola Holmes” installments provide its adept star with a more substantive mystery to solve.