Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated PG-13, 123 minutes
Directed by: Harry Bradbeer
Adapted from the first of six novels by author Nancy Springer, director Harry Bradbeer’s ENOLA HOLMES is as if NANCY DREW was redone in the irreverent style of FLEABAG (no surprise they share the same director) and set in the SHERLOCK HOLMES universe. While a younger, super-sleuthing sister’s adventures make for a highly appealing renovation of a familiar property, the scaffolding to support the build isn’t as strong as it ought to be. An elongated run time, a mystery that’s solved long before the end credits and a whimper of a finale stand to tarnish what should be the makings of a fun franchise for Netflix. But with its spry spirit, grand scale action sequences and effervescent performances from its two teen leads, it’s a noteworthy beginning.
Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown) was raised by her radical, free-spirited mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) like an only child despite having two much older, very well-known brothers, Mycroft (Sam Claflin) and Sherlock (Henry Cavill). The boys flew the nest for London when Enola was a baby, leaving her and their mother to their own devices. Residing in a remote English countryside manor, the young lass was offered unconventional home schooling by her quirky mom, reading expansive educational texts, deciphering word puzzles in Scrabble tiles and decoding the hidden language of nature. She even began self-defense oriented physical activities very early on. The only gaps in her education were proper social graces and manners, to assimilate into society as a lady.
The stranger things Enola’s grown accustomed to abruptly vanish on her sixteenth birthday when her mother, who was fiercely private, leaves their home without a trace – or at least one visible to the untrained eye. To make matters worse, her snooty and disapproving brothers return home to find the place in disarray and their younger sister more of a headstrong feminist and less of a proper lady than they’d like to see. They want to send her off to boarding school. However, the night before she’s to leave, she uncovers clues about her mom’s suspicious disappearance and sets out to find her. Enola’s independent sojourn brings her in contact with Viscount Tewkesbury, Marquess of Basilwether (Louis Partridge), a cute boy with dreamy locks who’s involved in a mysterious conspiracy as well. As she goes undercover sporting myriad disguises (two of which make for the film’s long-running gag) to evade her brothers’ attention, she’s forced to remember her mother’s teachings and put them to the test all while forging her own path towards enlightenment.
Bradbeer captures the spectacle of action coherently with verve and zest. Sequences like the pursuit on the train as Enola and Tewkesbury elude an assassin’s capture and the fight between Enola and the assassin in the explosives stockade (which is home to a clever ploy more heroes should pull) should thrill tweens, teens and adults alike. He and editor Adam Bosman establish a snappy, energetic rhythm with the comedy timing as well. The dry British humor in Jack Thorne’s screenplay crackles, igniting the fuse that pops and sparks the actors’ performances. Consolata Boyle’s costumes and Michael Carlin’s production design also earn top marks, immersing us in period landscape. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens does a terrific job aesthetically delineating the effused, radiant glow of the countryside from the clashing cool blue and steely gray of the city’s grimy underbelly. This juxtaposition works perfectly to set a mood and visual tonality, but also helps to demarcate flashbacks.
Brown is simply charming as our titular heroine, adept at keeping us engaged in her character’s quest, keyed into her emotional drive and rooting for her success. She adds depth and dimension to the budding detective’s inquisitive nature, powering her with gumption and gravitas. Partridge makes for an admirable scene partner, capably grasping the movements of the repartee and banter. Cavill and Claflin should be given their own spin-off series. Claflin delivers his cold, cruel lines with the perfect amount of disdain, his lips dripping with thick, syrupy anger, scorn seething from his pores. Cavill’s Sherlock, whose chilly temperament towards his intelligent sister eventually thaws, probably experiences the most change out of any of the characters by the end of film.
Still, with all the picture’s buoyancy, it suffers greatly when it comes to pacing. It’s front-heavy on interjections with title cards and cutaways to increase the absurdity and 4th wall-breaking cheekiness, which mostly fade by the end of act two. Mounting narrative momentum gets stuck any time the brewing, swoony teen romance comes into play. While this is understandable given the target market, the belabored interactions between the couple drag it down rather than add emotional impact. Worse, the filmmakers also do two of its female characters dirty in the final act: one whose agency is blunted at the behest of a man, and another whose good virtue is unjustly harmed.
Composer Daniel Pemberton adeptly locates the material’s whimsical, fantastical undertones, bringing them into the foreground, trotting them around for a spritely jig. There’s a tactile feel to the symphonic soundscape created – one brimming with adventure, humor and heart that’s fanciful and freeing. It’s a smart move to give the score an identity harkening to the plucky protagonist’s own journey. But Bradbeer over-relies on these stirring, swirling arrangements and it quickly becomes taxing and exhausting in their overbearing, obtuse use.
For the most part, ENOLA HOLMES succeeds with its innovative approach, doubling as an homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s time-honored iconic creation while maintaining its originality.
Grade: 3.5 out of 5
ENOLA HOLMES begins streaming on Netflix on September 23.