Air Dates: September 23, 2020
I absolutely loved the Enola Holmes Mysteries by Nancy Springer. With only six volumes, it’s long enough to keep a reader entertained for a week but short enough that reading and rereading isn’t a gargantuan effort. I’ve read them several times and at different ages, and each time I find something new to appreciate about them and their unconventional heroine.
So you can imagine my excitement when I heard that Enola Holmes was coming to the screen.
Part of me hoped that it would be a mini series adapting all of the books, but for now at least it seems it is a stand-alone movie. As such it has some significant differences, even from the first book The Case of the Missing Marquess which it is based on. But, unlike with some adaptations, I understand why they made the changes they did and it works for what they were going for. With a different format, audience, time of the release, and other factors, these changes made for a very entertaining and well-done piece of cinema.
Enola has been raised by her mother in their rambling country estate for her entire life. While Enola is very well read, her mother has taught all kinds of unwomanly things like logic puzzles, word games, archery, and martial arts. While Enola is aware that she has two much older brothers, Mycroft and Sherlock, she hasn’t seen them since their father’s funeral when Enola was four years old.
On Enola’s sixteenth birthday, her mother disappears, leaving only a cipher kit, some art supplies, and a book on the meanings of flowers. Desperate for help, Enola summons her brothers, but they are dismayed by what they find. Enola is, in their eyes, a wild, undisciplined child, the house is in shambles, and there is no sign of the money Mycroft kept sending ostensibly for its upkeep and Enola’s education. Despite her protestations, Mycroft is determined to send Enola to finishing school, and Sherlock agrees with him. Enola deciphers some messages from her mother, uncovering a substantial amount of cash, and flees from the house disguised as a boy.
While on the train to London to start the search for her mother, Enola ends up meeting and saving the Viscount of Tewkesbury who is on the run from his family. They are attacked by a mysterious man and only escape when Enola and Tewkesbury jump off the train. They bond a little over a mutual interest in botany and in being outcasts from their family. They reach London and go their separate ways. Enola disguises herself as a lady (something her brothers would not expect) and starts looking for her mother. But she uncovers some disturbing evidence that her mother’s involvement with women’s liberation and suffrage may turn violent when she finds a cache of gunpowder, explosives, and bombs. She also tries to unravel why Tewkesbury is being targeted by the mysterious assassin.
Enola ends up saving Tewkesbury again, but loses her freedom in the process. Mycroft takes her to finishing school, where she is effectively imprisoned. Sherlock arrives with some encouragement, but no practical help. Tewkesbury helps Enola escape and she manages to put together the pieces of the puzzle: Tewkesbury’s father was a liberal in Parliment before he was killed in a botched burglary. If the young Tewkesbury is added to the House of Lords, he will probably vote for a bill that would advance the women’s suffrage movement. But if Tewkesbury is killed, his seat would go to his conservative uncle, and the bill would not pass. Together they thwart the villain behind the attacks, Tewkesbury goes on to the House of Lords, and Enola keeps one step ahead of her brothers, ending with a brief, tearful reunion with her mother, who apparently left Enola in order to focus on dangerous work for the suffragettes. They part, and we are left to see Enola set off into London to make her way in the world.
I truly enjoyed this adaptation of Enola Holmes… and yet I feel like they also missed the mark on some very important key features of the character and feminism.
But before I get into that, I wanted to express what I did enjoy about Netflix’s Enola Holmes. I loved the introduction and Enola’s fourth-wall-breaking asides to the audience. I enjoyed the lighting, the overall upbeat and adventurous feel of the story. The pacing was good, packing a lot into a relatively small amount of time without feeling bloated or rushed. The music was a bit unconventional, at least in the beginning, but again felt like it fit the tone of the film and I liked it. But probably the best part which really pulled everything together was the stellar cast.
Millie Bobby Brown is wonderful as Enola. She possess fire and intelligence, is observant and brave, and is able to change her appearance to look believably childlike or adult, depending on her outfit. Her asides to the camera throughout the film transformed a highly internal story into something the audience could connect with and I was rooting for her the whole time. I’m glad that they decided to make Enola sixteen instead of fourteen in this adaptation, as it does make a lot of the events and stunts more believable. She’s much prettier than the books describe her to be, but then again, so is Sherlock and I could believe the family resemblance between them.
Helena Bonham Carter is fae and eccentric, which is fitting for both the actress and the character she plays: the Holmes family matriarch Eudoria. She and Enola are very close, but there is also a distance due to Eudoria’s secrets. It is unclear if she is a little unhinged, merely unconventional, or some combination thereof, but she is a force to be reckoned with, even when physically absent.
I am not fond of the young Viscount Tewkesbury being made into a possible love interest for Enola (he was twelve in the book), but the actor Louis Partridge managed to win me over with his presentation in this adaptation. He doesn’t always think ahead, but he has a good heart, and is very cute.
While I do dislike the trend of Mycroft Holmes being thin, Sam Claflin did a great job as the highly traditional (read “misogynistic”) older brother who is the main threat to Enola’s freedom. He’s dangerous not because of outright malice but because of his unquestioning acceptance of social conventions, which demand that Enola be sent to finishing school to be prepped for the marriage market.
However, I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed Henry Cavill as Sherlock Holmes. He’s definitely warmer and expresses more humor than other presentations of Sherlock (which has actually led to a lawsuit against Netflix by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), but I think this in part happens because of Enola. She and Sherlock are a lot alike, and deep down he knows it, but because she is female and he is male they must by default take different paths. Although he seems to see more of her potential than Mycroft, he’s still misogynistic enough to assume that she won’t be able to do anything with it and would only be unhappy trying. This changes over the course of the film and he comes to respect her, even if he isn’t entirely convinced that she should be running around in London alone.
Like I said before, I understand a lot of reasoning behind the changes they made to the story. Film Enola and Film Eudoria are clearly very close, spend a lot of time together, and clearly love one another. For Book Enola, it’s a different story. Book Eudoria is more distant, to the point where Book Enola isn’t even sure if her mother loves her at all. Book Enola is starved for affection and love, but has also been raised to be extremely self-sufficient. “You will do very well on your own, Enola,” is the constant refrain. But this kind of complex relationship is easier to see and explore over the course of several books than it is in a single film. By making Film Enola and Eudoria close, it raises the emotional stakes and tension that helps drive Film Enola and makes her motivation easier to understand. There’s a lot more action and fight scenes and martial arts because that’s more exciting to watch than carefully deciphering codes or getting into different disguises. It focuses more on women’s suffrage and rights, since that remains a relevant topic today.
I feel like the film tried a little too hard to present Enola as a kick-ass unconventional female in a modern sense. It focuses on only limited and well-tread facets of resistance: physical prowess, masculine dress, and the threat of violence.
Martial Arts = Strong Female Character
I found the “secret” martial arts class for women the most unbelievable portion of the film, especially since it seems that it was not a Women’s Club that did not allow men in. If Sherlock was able to enter, what was to keep other men from coming in, hearing the commotion upstairs, and putting an end to the martial arts lessons? (Although I am not an expert in Victorian women’s history and perhaps such a thing did exist… but I think it highly unlikely and sticks out as a modern anachronism in an otherwise fairly realistic Victorian setting.) It’s not a bad thing for Film Enola to know martial arts, as it is a form of empowerment. But one of things I loved about Book Enola is that she really wasn’t a fighter. She did carry knives for self-protection, but had no real formal training. She used her wits to keep out of trouble, and if trouble did find her, her first recourse was to escape, often in very creative ways. Fighting was a last resort. Film Enola says that her mother shaped her to fight, and it’s implied that this means she is supposed to do so physically with martial arts. And I feel like women should be encouraged to use all options at their disposal and not feel like they must learn jujitsu in order to be a true, free-thinking feminist or a woman equal to a man. Not everyone can do martial arts, and the focus on them seems limiting rather than freeing. We’ve already seen many women in recent movies kick butt physically (Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey, Black Widow), so it would be nice to see a woman defeat her opponents without relying so heavily on the stereotypically male domain of physical prowess.
Attention to Dress
Another massive difference between these versions is in their approach to women’s clothing. Book Enola never dresses as a boy. She does this because she isn’t very beautiful and correctly surmises that her brothers will be looking for her to wear masculine clothes. So she does the complete opposite and uses a vast array of female disguises to elude them. And while hiding among different strata of feminine society, we get to see how women are treated, overlooked, or otherwise ignored. By contrast, Film Enola wears male clothing several times (but doesn’t pull it off very well since she is rather pretty and continuously keeps her hat off for some reason…) She doesn’t explore the range of society available to her. Film Enola also misses a great opportunity to take the traditional restrictions of female dress and subvert them into something practical. Book Enola uses her steel corsets as armor, which saves her life more than once, and her bustle to store needed supplies, especially when she runs away. She even hides a knife in her bodice by putting a brooch on the hilt. Book Enola does not like the restrictions placed on women due to their dress and would clearly enjoy the option for more freedom, but she doesn’t really want to wear trousers either. Likewise, I often enjoy wearing dresses or skirts, but would be extremely upset if those were the only things I was allowed to wear. By subverting the expectations and original purpose of Victorian dress, Book Enola rebels against the status quo in a more subtle but still extremely effective way. But Film Enola misses this opportunity and seems to show a general dislike for women’s clothes without turning them to her advantage.
For the Cause…
While women’s rights and suffrage are important to both the Book and Film versions of Enola and Eudoria, I feel like Film Eudoria takes it beyond fighting for women’s rights in the political and social sphere into the realm that borders on terrorism. The scene where she is plotting with other women on some kind of target combined with the bombs that Film Enola finds later paint Film Eudoria as someone willing to injure or even kill other people, possibly innocent people, in the name of women’s suffrage. This seems like a dangerous and irresponsible message to be sending, and makes me a bit less sympathetic towards Eudoria. Film Eudoria is presented as much more radical and leaves her daughter because the cause is more important, which to me made her less relatable and less likable. Book Eudoria was more distant from her daughter, but to me it was more understandable. She reformed and fought for women’s liberation as best she could by changing minds through writing and allowed Enola to grow independently. Book Eudoria does leave for a possibly more selfish reason, but oddly enough one that garnered more sympathy from me. Rather than “for the cause,” she goes to enjoy a final chance at freedom from all restrictions with the Gypsies. “NOT ONLY CHRYSANTHEMUM,” she says in one of her ciphers to Enola, “ALSO RAMBLING ROSE.” She loves Enola as best she can in her own way, even if that way may not have been enough. That is a sentiment I relate to far better, and is a big reason why I decided long ago not to have any children.
I want to be very clear that I am not against women doing traditionally male things or vice versa. The problem is that Enola Holmes is the perfect character to show how women can subvert restrictive, sexist systems without necessarily resorting to violence. Enola outwits her brother Sherlock, not by being smarter, but by noticing things that he overlooks and dismisses because they are associated with the feminine sphere. Just a few examples: In The Case of the Bizarre Bouquet, he misses key clues in a flower bouquet that Enola picks up on and leads to her rescuing Watson from a madhouse. In The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan, Enola is able to find out that someone is in danger because she knows the language of fans. Sherlock doesn’t recognize her on several occasions when she’s disguised as a very pretty debutante, not giving her a second look because her appearance causes him to immediately dismisses her as an empty-headed goose. He places no value on the feminine and that is his undoing on several cases.
Enola embraces the power of the feminine rather than struggling to fit into the realm of the masculine, and proves herself to be just as capable, if not more so, as Sherlock in the field of detective work. Women and girls should be able to see women being competent and succeeding in all different ways, areas, and fields, not just the ones dominated by men. There are many different paths to become a capable, independent woman. You also don’t have to know martial arts or scorn women’s clothing or blow things up to create lasting change.
Netflix’s Enola Holmes is a fun, well-made, entertaining movie, and I do recommend that you see it, while keeping in mind that it is an adaptation and has very little in common with the first book’s plot. But I do mourn the fact that it had the chance to be so much more. It could have dug a little deeper into the myriad, subtle aspects and expressions of feminism rather than skimming the surface and grabbing the low-hanging fruit to code for female empowerment. Perhaps, if they make sequels to this film, they’ll be able to explore further and show off the true strengths of Enola Holmes.
In the meantime… read The Enola Holmes Mysteries by Nancy Springer. You won’t be disappointed.
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“Sherlock Sundays” is a Film Review Series focusing on various multimedia interpretations of Sherlock Holmes.