Enola Holmes is a Fun Film, Driven by a Cast of Strong Female Characters


Image Courtesy of Arab News

I first learned about Enola Holmes, a Netflix original from director Harry Bradbeer, through a brilliant publicity campaign on social media. The campaign put up status around London, seeking to highlight the lesser known, but often equally talented, sisters of famous figures. I learned for the first time about Francis Dickens (Charles Dicken’s sister who’s school fees were prioritized over Charles’ because her parents believed her a more promising student), Maria Mozart (sister of Wolfgang Mozart, who was also an accomplished composer), and Mary Hardy (sister of novelist Thomas Hardy, who in his own words had an incredible eye for literature). This campaign set my expectations for this film high, as I anticipated a cast of strong female characters, and a winding mysterious plot. Although certain expectations were met, and exceeded in certain areas, there were other part of the film that fell utterly short.

Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown) is the younger sister of Sherlock Holmes (Henry Cavill), and Mycroft Holmes (Sam Clafin), who were largely absent in her life while she was growing up. Raised by her mother Eudoria Holmes (Helena Bonham Carter) on their country estate, Enola was personally tutored by Eudoria in all manner of skill sets, including archery, fencing, Judo, mathematics, and anything else she could learn by reading through their extensive library. Suddenly, without warning, on the day of Enola’s sixteenth birthday, her mother goes missing. Sherlock and Mycroft are called home to deal with the disappearance, and to decide Enola’s fate, prompting Enola to run away to London to find her mother.

Along with the mystery surrounding her mother’s whereabouts, Enola stumbles upon another mystery involving The Marquees of Tewksbury (Lewis Partridge), who is also running away from his family and their expectations of him. The mysteries cross and intermingle, and weave a progressive political plot surrounding the plans of the House of Commons to pass The Reform Bill of 1884, which significantly expanded voting rights in the United Kingdom. Although the specifics of the bill are never discussed in the film, it is heavily implied that this bill would extend voting rights to women. However, that would not happen in England until 1918.

This film, and perhaps sequel films, are based on a series of young adult novels by Nancy Springer (sequel plans may be hindered by a lawsuit from the Arthur Conan Doyle foundation over the use of the famous characters). I get the feeling from watching the film that there were some issues translating the story from the page to the screen, in particular how to handle narration and some of the puzzles and clues Enola has to solve along the way.

Image Courtesy of Vulture

Enola breaks the fourth wall, narrating her own journey to the camera whenever some expedition needs to be carried out. This semi-narration was well done, and served to help explain some of the aspects of the mystery, and help the audience connect details of the plot that may not have been apparent. At times the narration does seem to take away trust in the audience. By narrating some of the more apparent connections, the script doesn’t seem to trust the audience to figure out the movie on their own. Although aspects of the mystery were quite complex, and connections needed to be made, narration is a tool that is better suited for mediums such as stage plays and books, not film where cleaver shots and details can be used to make the connections stronger. The film was based on a book, which explains the presence of this technique, but when the story changes mediums, the tools used to tell the story need to shift as well.

This film was very successful with its portrayal of strong female characters. Since Eudora’s feminist work is central to the plot of the story, it would have been disappointing if these feminist ideas were not worked into the characters. One of the pitfalls when writing female characters is to make them into the “Mary-Sue” trope, where a female character is utterly lacking in flaws. This can also manifest as a character who is skilled at everything without trying. Enola is far from this trope, as she is portrayed as stubborn to a fault, and more concretely unable to ride a bike without crashing. The introduction to the film also shows her receiving extensive training from her mother, establishing a narrative reason for her Jane-Of-All-Trades skill set.

Although there is a romantic subtext woven throughout the movie, Enola resists participating in it. Tewksbury is clearly smitten with her, but she wants nothing to do with this, as she is primarily interested in finding her mother. Although you will have to watch the movie to see how this subplot resolves itself, I will say that I was quite pleased with how it turned out, and the way it resisted the conventional way these plots play out.

This film also passes the Bechdel Test, a basic evaluation of a film’s feminist potential laid out by poet Alison Bechdel. In order to pass, a film must have two named female characters must have a few lines of dialogue discussing something other than a man (surprisingly few films pass this test). Although not perfect, this metric can provide a way to begin to discuss a film’s representation of women, and Enola Holmes passes with flying colors.

This film is also about growing up, and dealing with our families and their shortcomings. Both main characters, Enola and Tewksbury, must face hard truths about their families that they were not ready to accept. In this endeavor it is successful as well. Despite the narration, and certain issues I had with the way the film was cut together at times, this was a fun and whimsical film driven by strong female characters. My own Pet-peeves aside, what more could you ask for?

-Patrick Bernas