It’s not the main function of great fictional characters to provide platforms for the careers of others, but they do the job very well. In a new film, Sherlock Holmes walks into Inspector Lestrade’s office and announces that he has solved a particular case. Lestrade is pleased, and says he has two questions. The first is how did Holmes do it? Holmes offers a detailed answer. He is about to leave when Lestrade asks his second question: how did Holmes’s sister manage it before him?
His sister? She is the titular character of Enola Holmes (on Netflix), directed by Harry Bradbeer and adapted by Jack Thorne from a novel by Nancy Springer. Springer has written more than fifty books for young adults, going some way towards confirming that this category often has nothing to do with the age of the reader, and means only that the writing is better than a lot of what is apparently suited to older adults. Six of Springer’s books are about Enola Holmes, and the film is her first translation into cinema. It is based on the first in the series, The Case of the Missing Marquess (2006), so we may be witnessing the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
In spite of the obvious, the film isn’t really about detection. It is about survival and rescue. It’s also about our relation to the heroine, because she talks to the camera a lot. ‘Wouldn’t you?’ she asks us directly. ‘Do you have any ideas?’ Sometimes she just makes funny faces or gives us knowing looks, as if we have been her confidants since long before the film began. We first see her riding across the screen on a bike. She falls off later, telling us that cycling is not one of her strong points. But Enola has done plenty of talking already. ‘Now, where to begin,’ she says, and starts with her name. ‘I know it’s an unusual name.’ She also knows that spelled backwards it reads ‘alone’.
Her mother has disappeared, and Enola is on her way to meet her brothers, Sherlock and Mycroft, at a railway station. Mycroft has been her guardian since their father’s early death and is also, in the best tradition of male inheritance, the owner of the house where Enola has been living with her mother for 16 years – a sort of loan, we learn, made to give her mother the time she needed to educate Enola as part athlete, part scholar, part judo expert, and entire rebel. (One of her set texts was John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women.) However, 16 years were enough, and Mrs Holmes has taken off to start a new life. She might have told her daughter what she was doing – but she didn’t.
Her brothers don’t recognise Enola at the station; they haven’t seen her in a while, and neither of them is very good at caring about other people anyway. When they learn who she is, they are disappointed. She has mud on her face from her fall, her hair is all over the place and she isn’t wearing any gloves. The year is 1884 – could she be any less like a lady? Mycroft decides instantly that Enola needs to go to a finishing school, and she sees this as a good reason to escape to London in search of her mother. On the train she meets another runaway, a young man who happens to be the missing marquess, and the plot takes us off into all kinds of adventures involving the state of England and the Third Reform Act. Enola finds her mother, but they are soon parted again.
The film is very stylish and aware of style. Almost everything that is interesting in it depends not on what happens but on how it happens. And on how the characters and the actors playing them deal with it. There are some wonderful supporting performances, although ‘supporting’ is not the right word – ‘framing’ might be closer to it. Mrs Holmes is played by Helena Bonham Carter, looking young enough to be Mycroft’s daughter, and she appears in many of Enola’s mental flashbacks energetically employing havoc as a method of education. Conversely, the marquess’s grandmother, played by Frances de la Tour, looks old enough to be Methuselah’s sister, and embodies so perfectly the dream dowager, twinkly and intelligent, that she must be (and is) up to something else. Burn Gorman brings a special gothic nastiness to his part as the evil pursuer of the missing marquess, and Fiona Shaw, as headmistress of the school Enola at first avoids and is later condemned to, is something like Mrs Dursley if she’d managed to get a job at Hogwarts.
Sam Claflin and Henry Cavill, as Mycroft and Sherlock, are pompous and preoccupied, respectively, though Cavill does allow a little humanity to creep into the great detective’s careful avoidances of emotion. Louis Partridge as the young marquess is appropriately impressed by Enola’s knightly independence and takes on the endangered maiden role with good grace. The clichés are swirling all over the place and having a good time, never resting. It works well, but none of it would work at all without Millie Bobby Brown as Enola, who talks to herself as much as she talks to us, and rarely fails to find the right offensive words for others. In the most recent novel, The Case of the Gypsy Goodbye (2010), the heroine-narrator speaks of ‘rolling my eyes at myself’ – that is, not believing she’s about to do what she’s about to do, but ready all the same, and this is an effect that Brown nails again and again. It’s part of the character and the writing, of course. But it’s also in the particular, photographed face and its motions, so perhaps we should think not so much of a written character brought to life as of a film performance that creates a new life, made of inimitable grins and grimaces and indications of failed surprise. And fun. It’s clear that both character and actress are having an equally good time.
This impression has a lot to do with the chief moral question of the film, the preoccupation that tugs it away from mystery and suspense. Enola needs to find herself more than she does her mother, and she achieves this by resisting, on important occasions, her mother’s teaching and example. The mother is closer to Mycroft than we might think, and one of her lessons is that self comes first and last, however much we may be tempted by the idea of sacrifice for others. Enola, debating this with herself and us, thinks the advice is often correct, but can’t always be followed. If she followed it, she would have left the marquess to face his own dangers, after having helped him out of a first scrape. But she doesn’t. She’s not simply being emotional, as Sherlock at one point suggests. She realises that she can’t not help a person who needs it, and this hasn’t to do not with pity or charity but with her need to put her own talents and skills to use. Enola isn’t a philosopher and perhaps neither Brown nor her character can fully read their own faces and minds. But they are effectively proposing an idea of the self that starts with the inclusion of others rather than their precautionary exclusion.