Alas, Poor Sherrinford
Now here's a funny thing: I've been reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories since I was eight. I've read the lot, watched nearly every TV adaptation in the last thirty-five years, seen most of the major film adaptations, even read quite a few pastiches, and – and if this isn't a sign of the irretrievably lost, I don't know what is – have even had a go at working out the chronology of the canon, and can explain fairly succinctly why all such attempts are doomed to inevitable failure. And yet I find myself strongly suspecting that I am not in the target audience for Netflix's new slice of Holmesian schlock, Enola Holmes (directed by Harry Bradbeer).
What's that then, you may be thinking, and what kind of a name is Enola, anyway? Well, fair point: 'Let's be blunt about this – you should not name your baby girl after the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb,' advises one website dealing with infant nomenclature (the pushback from irate Enolas who are sick of this particular historical association dominates the comments section). Apparently the name dates back to the 1850s, at least, so it's not totally implausible that it could have been given to the younger sister of the slightly better-known Holmes brothers, Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin).
Enola Holmes herself is played by Millie Bobby Brown, who also produced it (you know you're getting old when the film producers start looking younger, but then again Brown is only sixteen). With the Holmes patriarch having passed away, the youthful Enola is raised by her mother (Helena Bonham Carter, cast so absolutely to type it practically sets a new standard), with a somewhat eccentric home-schooling curriculum. However, this bucolic idyll is dispelled when our heroine herself turns sixteen and her mum vanishes, almost without a trace.
This occasions the turning up of Enola's brothers for the first time in over a decade – Sherlock is making a name for himself as a detective, while Mycroft is some sort of non-specific civil servant – and she is somewhat dismayed by their response, which is basically to pack her off to a grim, Gilead-like finishing-school run by Fiona Shaw. She demurs at this and heads for London, following a trail of clues left by Mrs Holmes using her first class scrabble and ju-jitsu skills. Is a mother and child reunion on the cards? Or will another, unconnected mystery end up occupying most of the movie's running time? (Clue: it will.) This concerns a non-threatening young toff on the lam (Louis Partridge) and the future of British society.
This is the movie that managed to get Netflix sued by the Conan Doyle estate, on the grounds that it depicts Sherlock Holmes as having emotions (this is supposedly still covered by copyright). This surprises me not because of the possibly opportunistic nature of the litigation (the Conan Doyle heirs have form in this area, having previously taken a tilt at the 2015 film Mr Holmes), but because the emphasis given to particular aspects of the great detective's character is really the least of the film's offences when it comes to the canon of the stories. Speculation as to the existence of a third Holmes sibling has been going on for years and has taken many forms, so the existence of the film per se isn't a problem – but the moment the film begins to present Mycroft Holmes as a bitter, reactionary misanthrope, jealous of the greater intellectual gifts of his younger siblings, you know that whoever is responsible (the book was by Nancy Springer, adapted by Jack Thorne) either doesn't know the Conan Doyle stories or just doesn't care about them.
Mycroft's basically there to represent The Man in a film which is only nominally a mystery and much more about sending the right kind of messages about self-realisation and emancipation, leavened somewhat by a very chaste YA-friendly sort-of romance for Brown. It doesn't bear much resemblance to the Conan Doyle stories, but then neither does it seem to have much to do with the actual reality of life in Victorian London, or anything else connected to historical fact: the film is much more about now, something reflected in a jaunty and slightly frantic visual and directorial style at times Enola Holmes seems more interested in breaking the fourth wall and talking to the viewer than in interacting with the other characters in the story. No doubt this is where the kids are at.
To be fair, Brown does have a certain winsome presence and carries the film about as well as one could reasonably expect in the circumstances. Most of the other performances are competent as well. I imagine most eyes will inevitably turn to Henry Cavill, who is after all joining a long and very distinguished list of actors to have played the most-filmed human fictional character. I do find Cavill to be an agreeable presence who can be fairly effective in the right part, but on the other hand he is best known for playing another crime-fighter of a slightly different ilk. Now, there's no rule saying that the same person can't play both Sherlock Holmes and Superman, but I think it's a safe bet that they're going to be somewhat miscast in one of those roles. Cavill is decent if a bit bland as Holmes, but this is down to the script as much as the actor: he's there as a comforting supporting character, not as someone who drives the plot in any meaningful sense. Does that really sound like Sherlock Holmes to you? Nevertheless, this is the part Cavill has been engaged for.
The film is made to the usual standards of competency, with the English countryside nicely presented and an impressive CGI London, but then that's really nothing special these days. There's also some fairly nasty violence, which doesn't feel like a particularly good fit for a film which seems to be aimed at a very young audience. I could be wrong about this, but the laboriousness with which the film bangs on at the same theme again and again suggests it doesn't have high expectations with regard to its viewers' mental development.
Watching Millie Bobby Brown chuck men about in the course of the plot inevitably put me in mind of the late Diana Rigg, whose performances have been one of the things keeping me sane recently. Rigg ended up as the kind of icon of female strength, intelligence and independence that I suspect the makers of this film would quite like Enola Holmes to be, and yet I don't recall any of Rigg's characters belabouring the audience on the topic: she just got on with being strong, intelligent and independent. This put the point across perfectly adequately and resulted, on the whole, in films and TV series which were much more entertaining and rather less wearisomely obvious than Enola Holmes usually is. This is rotten even as a piece of Sherlock-Holmes-at-one-remove, and fairly dull and obvious as a YA adventure film. It may not have been ideologically correct, but in terms of simple entertainment value Barry Levinson's Young Sherlock Holmes did this sort of thing much better.