I was looking forward to watching Enola Holmes upon first watching the trailer a couple of months ago. It looked witty, adventurous, and of course, starred America’s sweetheart-in-waiting, Millie Bobby Brown. I was excited at the prospect of seeing Millie take on a role vastly different than that of Eleven in Stranger Things. That the film also featured prominent Hollywood stars such as Henry Cavill and Helena Bonham Carter signified to me that Netflix concocted a thoughtful movie for us quarantined viewers.
For the amount of money Netflix likely shelled out to actors and production alike, the film itself lacks the same depth.
Enola Holmes is a movie that seems to pride itself on punchy “girl power” one-liners, but doesn’t seek to dive any deeper into its characters outside of the titular star and her older brother, Sherlock Holmes. And even then, these characters are written more as archetypes — people that are meant to teach the viewer lessons rather than tell us a story.
The main plot of the film, ironically, is multi-layered. Enola is simultaneously in a search for her mysteriously missing mother (whose feminist lessons are frequently referenced throughout the film’s two-hour runtime) and trying to solve the mystery of who is out to kill a boy she met serendipitously on a train ride to London, Tewkesbury. In the midst of her detective work, she is also escaping being sent to finishing school. Her eldest and anti-compassionate brother, Mycroft, is hellbent on sending Enola to the boarding school so she may learn the ropes of ladyhood.
All of these conflicts represent the tension between the life Enola wants to live — being independent, free-thinking, and unconstrained by patriarchal norms — and the society she currently lives in that is hostile to feminist women like her (and by extension, her mother). Mycroft specifically exists in the film to represent the patriarchal coercion of 19th century England; he subjects Enola to emotional and physical abuse in the film in an effort to put her in the submissive space he feels women belong in. Enola also points out that his dogged attempts to stifle her freedom are defensive; Mycroft feels threatened by Enola’s “place” in the family order. Her potential success is an affront to his. Although there are not many scenes featuring Mycroft and Enola, it was clear that the former existed to bring the dark underbelly of patriarchy to the film.
Outside of these moments, however, the film is unremarkable, even boring. Enola breaks the fourth wall for a good portion of the film, and in some scenes, it’s funny. She sometimes looks down the camera in disbelief to the viewer, an “Are you kidding me?” look to elicit laughter. Mostly though, the narration seems more like compensation for Enola’s lack of companion for her journey. This choice is likely intentional; we are told a couple of times during the movie how Enola’s name backwards is “Alone,” and so it seemed she preferred to remain this way during her exploits. Still, as a viewer, the tactic simply took me out of the film. I felt less like I was part of the narrative and more like it was being explained to me.
In the mind of expository dialogue, the film’s screenplay was filled with feel-good quips about choosing your own path and feminism, so much so that they felt random and forced. The worst example of this comes during an exchange between Sherlock and a Black woman named Edith. Edith was introduced earlier as a jiu-jitsu instructor to young girls, apparently Enola’s old teacher. When Sherlock was looking for Enola, he passed through Edith’s shop to inquire about her. I don’t actually recall much from this scene outside of Edith’s matter-of-fact dialogue to Sherlock. She asks him why he is uninterested in politics, and he replies saying that they are “fatally boring.” She retorts by essentially saying that he has no reason to be interested in politics because the world already caters to him. I’ve seen many on the internet comment on the GIF-able nature of this dialogue, how such a statement rung hollow in the grand scheme of the film, and having watched it now, it tracks. This, along with many other memorable lines of the movie, seemed to exist for their very digestable, meme-able nature. I just know the screenwriters just had these disparate catchphrases lying on paper somewhere, and they were pining for a movie plot to put them into.
Edith’s inclusion in the film felt forced in the way that her character existed as tokenization. Netflix knew this movie would be marketed as feminist, and they know now that in order to “pass” internet tests of wokeness, it needed to feature at least one Black woman with a speaking part. But, I know white Hollywood’s tricks, and I see what they did here. They created Edith’s character to deliver this damning line to Sherlock, an “ooh yeah, get him!” moment for fans, but then amplified her character to also be a teacher to the white female lead of the film. This way, she was “more” than just the clapback she delivered, and non-white fans would be satisfied. And yet, I and other viewers saw right through this. In a film that centered (white) female progressivism, a Black woman once again only existed to “educate” a white person on equality. And while her message fit the general theme of the movie, Edith’s lesson offers no discernable change in Sherlock’s character on merit alone.
And thus, that was pretty much the story of Enola Holmes. It is a movie written from ideas, not a complete, narrative story. Having perspective is imperative in creating art; however it is important to fully flesh out the characters and the plot to bring three dimensions to your perspective. I find that the best film and TV start with story first, and develop poignant political commentary after. Media now is trying to capitalize on the liberation ideology of the time by writing dense illustrations of our most pressing social/political issues. Creators must be careful not to lose nuance in their endeavors to make a capital S “Statement.” In this movie, an example of that discernment being lost is Enola’s assertion that corsets were oppressive garments primarily forced upon women. The actuality of the garment’s history is much more complex; while the fall in popularity of the corset was liberating in many ways to women, the corset was actually seen as a standard form of undergarment for all genders. To revisit Edith, there was no discussion at all of the struggles she might have endured in fitting in with British society as a Black woman, despite the feminist leanings of the movie.
Ultimately, I wonder what this film could have been if it had more substance to string together its shallow political statements. Perhaps I was not the target audience for this film, and as a result I feel it to be unfulfilling. I think of the more delightful parts of the movie, and ponder if it would be better suited to teenage viewers, around ages 15-19. The care and in the end, protection shown by Sherlock toward Enola was heart-warming for any adolescent girl with a vastly different, yet caring older sibling. The meet-cute relationship that burgeoned between Enola and Tewkesbury left enough to the imagination for a girl to dream. Speaking of, I intensely dug the choice to not have the Enola and Tewkesbury kiss at the end of the movie; the plot instead opted for Enola to continue her life alone, but still open to the possibility of love down the line. I believe a younger viewer would benefit more from the kind of bold-type screenwriting this film made use of. If the goal of the film was to awaken the feminist potential of young girls, then I do believe it succeeded.
Still, for more mature viewers like myself, the lesson we take from Enola Holmes may well be that ideas do not make a story. Activist lingo does not make a story. Figuring out how to humanize specific subjects during a political movement requires a litany of research, tools, and sophistication. Enola Holmes remains a solid second draft of a final term paper. A few more details would make for a perfect grade.