It’s a concept that sounds as if were pulled directly out of a Hollywood boardroom from hell: What if Sherlock Holmes was a teenage girl? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle likely never dreamed of giving the Holmes family a decidedly feminine bent, but Nancy Springer did just that with her best-selling “Enola Holmes Mysteries” YA series, which doesn’t gender-bend the literary detective so much as create a wily new version in the form of his whip-smart younger sister. Six books in, the series has spawned a Netflix adaptation starring “Stranger Things” breakout Millie Bobby Brown. It’s a frisky new would-be franchise that seamlessly translates to the screen, and shows just how inspired Springer’s idea really was.
Helmed by long-time small-screen director Harry Bradbeer — and rife with all the winking and fourth wall-breaking you’d expect from the two-time “Fleabag” Emmy winner — “Enola Holmes” opens with a dizzying amount of information. Told in zippy, scrapbook style as Brown happily chats her way through a slew of Very Important Points, we learn the basics: she’s the youngest Holmes kid, her dad is dead, her famous big brothers don’t really know her, and she’s spent most of her life hanging out with her beloved mother (an underutilized Helena Bonham Carter). It’s her mum who is really obsessed with word games, leading to the (oft-reminded) creation of Enola’s name, which is “alone,” backward.
The mind tricks will certainly get better from there, as Bradbeer’s film is rife with all sorts of mysterious twists and turns and shocks. It also never forgets that it’s inspired by a series designed for the younger set, but as Jack Thorne’s script steadily ratchets up the drama (though at just over two hours, some of that ratcheting could have come more quickly), “Enola Holmes” reveals itself to be genuinely appealing for a wide audience.
It’s also refreshingly timely. Enola tells her audience about a childhood spent doing “different things” with her mum, from reading every book in the family’s sizable library to playing actual sports around the house (and often inside the house). Mrs. Holmes is a clear believer in equal rights (and carefully-dropped hints let on early that such concerns might frame a bigger mystery), and Enola has long enjoyed being very much her own person. The pair of them have happily lived for years, unburdened by societal expectations, but all that is about to change: On Enola’s 16th birthday, her mom goes missing.
Soon, her famous big brothers — Henry Cavill as a smiling and smooth Sherlock, Sam Claflin as the perpetually buttoned-up and by-the-book Mycroft — descend on their crumbling manor, intent on packing Enola off to finishing school to, well, finish. Convinced her mother left clues as to her whereabouts, and possessing a brain to rival Sherlock’s, Enola sets off on what will become her first mission as a fledgling detective.
Predictably convoluted (and, of course, wrapped up tight by its end), Enola’s journey takes her everywhere from dirty old London to a sprawling country estate, complete with a number of amusing costume changes (Brown has a delightful time going undercover, and costume designer Consolata Boyle does fitting work) and plenty of action. (When she said she learned “sports” from her mom? That meant martial arts and hand-to-hand combat.) A seemingly serendipitous run-in with a young lord (Louis Partridge) frames another mystery for her to unravel (or is it the same mystery?), as Enola’s already complicated life only grows bigger (and more fun).
Hot on her trail are her brothers, with Cavill adding a debonair edge to Sherlock and Claflin gleefully toying with Mycroft’s uptight nature (is he a bad guy? just a bit of a wanker? could go either way!), as Enola attempts to make her way in the world. Early hints as to a much bigger mystery eventually pan out, as Enola discovers just how much some people don’t want the world to change (sound familiar?). That this is all being unearthed by a plucky girl detective is no accident, and “Enola Holmes” doesn’t just use its heroine as a cute way to nod at progressive thinking; it fully embraces a story that is, at its heart, deeply feminist.
As Enola tumbles through stickier circumstances, with her brothers and a cadre of potential baddies on her heels, she becomes more deeply invested in a world in which the status quo is no longer enough, even as the old guard is desperate to hang on to it. “Year of the Rabbit” star Susan Wokoma makes a memorable turn as Holmes family friend Edith (whose very existence hints that Enola’s own memory might not be the most reliable), while Partridge makes for an endearing foil for the wild star and her increasingly insane quest.
While some of the hijinks go somewhat slack in the film’s middle — 123 minutes is a lot of time to fill, even with so many twists and turns — “Enola Holmes” and its winning heroine drive straight into an appropriately shocking conclusion that neatly sets up further adventures. Along the way, it establishes Enola and her evolving world as one both entertaining and instructive, a glimpse at a people and place on the cusp of something better and bigger, and willing to follow every clue to get there.
“Enola Holmes” will be available to stream on Netflix starting on Friday, September 23.