I had it in my head that Sherlock Holmes having a sister was cannon but it’s not. I mean I knew she was never a key character but I thought there might be a throw away comment in Conan Doyle’s work somewhere. There isn’t. I think it is because I was vaguely aware of the books this film is based on and then this was compounded by there being a sister introduced in the Benedict Cumberbatch series, in that case called Eurus not Enola.
To be fair though I really should have known because even beyond what I consider more than a passing knowledge of the original short stories, I’m not aware of any sibling other than Mycroft turning up in the Robert Downey Jr. version, or Jeremy Brett’s or Basil Rathbone’s. Similarly there was no sister in the films and shows with the detective being played by Peter O’Toole, Christopher Lee, Ian Richardson, Matt Frewer, Peter Cushing, Tom Baker, Jonathan Pryce, Ian McKellen or Jonny Lee Miller or in Young Sherlock Holmes or in that episode of Alvin and the Chipmunks or when Data portrayed him on the holodeck.
In running off this (incomplete) list I aim to make a point; cinema and television is not short of adaptations of Sherlock Holmes. This being the case, I am pleased to say that this new Netflix film does add something new to the mix. It is great to see a girl in this world; a world where the most significant female characters are the housekeeper and Irene Adler whose appearance is so anomalous that she is actually referred to as ‘the woman’. Philip Pullman did something similar with his excellent Sally Lockhart novels and the brilliant Billy Piper TV movies that followed them but they were merely Holmsian rather than actually being about the great detective himself. There are treats in seeing this famous character bouncing off a constantly underestimated but comparably smart little sister. Henry Cavill plays Holmes here and he’s actually very good, giving the man a warm edge to the smugness. (This is surprisingly good casting as Cavill plays smug a lot, in Mission Impossible, Stardust, The Man from Uncle and even a little in The Witcher and his Superman films. It’s kind of becoming his thing, better give him Bond after all.) This isn’t Sherlock’s show though. The real star, and one of the key reasons why this movie works so well, is Millie Bobby Brown.
If you’ve seen Stranger Things you’ll already know that the sixteen year old actor is a brilliant screen presence. This is a different performance to her signature show though and it nicely captures the sense of humour that she regularly displays in interviews and on red carpets.
The film hangs on her more than a lot of other movies of this type do their leads. Most of these types of fun adventures feature groups of characters on a mission together. Even those that are built around a central player, like most superhero films, have a notable supporting cast. Indiana Jones has Marion, Sallah, Brady, Short Round and his Dad and 007 has Q, M and Moneypenny. Enola Holmes spends time with others; her two brothers (Sam Claflin is an officious Mycroft) and a young Viscount she meets, but she actively rejects them to venture on alone for most of the story. In fact the script goes to pains to point out that this adjective of isolation is her name spelt backwards. This all feeds into her being presented as a strong protofeminist, winning on her own merits in a famously patriarchal world and genre. This said, they are not afraid to show that she has fragilities and even needs saving by a man at one stage, which is fine because the genders can support one another without either being diminished. The feminism theme is about as subtle here as it is in Mulan but it is welcome to see it played out with some balance, especially in a family film.
One way in which the solitude of the character is mitigated against is by giving her an ever present group of people to talk to in the form of you and me. We the audience are Enola’s Doctor Watson as she regularly breaks the fourth wall like it’s Deadpool’s Day Off. By engaging with us she proves engaging and it is a heavily but not over used convention.
There are visual quirks to match this frame breaking device elsewhere too and while this all combines to give the film a jovial tone, there is peril and emotion here as well. The mystery element might not be as sophisticated as you’d hope but if you think Sherlock is the only one to turn to for a fun Victorian crime adventure then, in the words of another famous Bobby Brown; two can play that game. This family may be synonymous with repressed, egotistical men but as it turns out, a woman’s place is in the Holmes.