If you’ve got a kid from the ages of 8-years-old to 16-years-old, the new Netflix movie Enola Holmes is great. Kids much younger than this range probably will be too freaked out by the violence and danger, and kids much older than that might sense there’s something slightly sanitized about this Victorian romp. In other words, the film honors its source material, a series of middle-grade novels written by Nancy Springer, focused on Sherlock Holmes’ hitherto unknown secret sister Enola and her various adventures as a young detective.
Enola Holmes is a fun movie, and though my daughter is only 3-years-old, I’m excited to show her this movie when she’s old enough. Yes, the film relies on some well-trodden tropes about “kickass” women and girls, but it does so with a very real eye on the repression of women in the 19th century and beyond. The great detective Sherlock Holmes has been accused of sexism in the past, but here, he’s confronted with it in a head-on fashion, and the message is simple: Sometimes the world needs a change, and more often than not, women are the people who make it a change for the better. Beyond the empowering commentary, the movie is mostly a fun teenage adventure, with Millie Bobby Brown getting the much-deserved spotlight as the eponymous Enola. She does that talking-to-the-camera thing that Phoebe Waller-Bridge did so well in Fleabag, which honestly, is what saves the movie from being too self-serious or, worse, a Disney Channel Original. Enola Holmes has some grit for tweens and teens, but not too much that the whole thing isn’t any fun.
Still. As a longtime Sherlock Holmes person, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if this movie were a child’s first introduction to Sherlock Holmes. I’m not saying this movie would ruin the 56 short stories and four novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but it would certainly be a weird way for a kid to discover this very famous literary hero. I’m not really one to talk. I’ve said this before, but my first exposure to Sherlock Holmes was in the cartoon The Real Ghostbusters, and I turned out to be a big fan of the original stories, and I have a particular affinity for Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock in the 1980s TV adaptation. (Which you can stream on BritBox. Just do it. It’s perfect.)
So, what’s the big deal? Well, I liked Henry Cavill’s take on Sherlock Holmes in this movie, and I think most parents will certainly find him to be the most role modelish version of the character. And yet, the weird thing about Cavill’s Sherlock is that he’s not weird enough. Henry Cavill’s Sherlock’s role in Enola Holmes is to be the concerned older brother, who broods, and occasionally, gets a clue. But, this characterization and performance is one-sided. It’s like he’s Harold Ramis from Ghostbusters but without the twinkie jokes.
Real Holmes fans know the truth about Sherlock Holmes, and it’s this: He’s funny. He’s bonkers. He’s oftentimes in a drug-induced hangover. He’s eccentric. He’s messy, and above all, he’s very often super rude. This last fact is partially why Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock was so captivating in 2010- there ain’t no burn like a Sherlock burn.
But Henry Cavill’s Sherlock Holmes isn’t like that. He’s just quiet and smart and there to be a background, supportive older brother Sherlock to Enola. Because the movie is called Enola Holmes this is good. The character of Sherlock Holmes is eccentric and strange enough that he could overpower the narrative if he was turned up all the way. But Cavill’s Sherlock seems dialed down to like a four. He’s not bad! He’s a good Sherlock, it’s just that if this was your first idea of who Sherlock Holmes was supposed to be, you’d be confused as to why he was awesome. Yes, Sherlock Holmes’s superpower is that he’s super-intelligent, but the more important superpower is that he’s an independent thinker. After the publication of his first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, writer Arthur Conan Doyle met Oscar Wilde at a party. Doyle was so taken with Wilde’s sense of humor that some scholars say he decided to inject that feeling of whimsy into Sherlock Holmes. In short, what made Sherlock Holmes funny was the fact that Doyle borrowed wit from Oscar Wilde. This is why the best Sherlocks — from Cumberbatch to Brett — make us laugh.
Henry Cavill’s Sherlock will certainly make you smile, along with the rest of the movie. But he won’t make you laugh. This Sherlock is down-to-business and not in a fun way. If, after watching Enola Holmes with your kiddo, you want to help them understand why Sherlock is awesome, you may want to head back to the books. Sherlock Holmes is cracking jokes in almost every single story, but if you want a good place to start, the Christmas story, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” will do just fine. After that, maybe “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist,” in which Holmes finds an encounter with a bunch of “ruffians” utterly hilarious.
It should also be noted that Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes books do a slightly better job of creating a Holmes that is similar to the one from Doyle’s stories. That said, Cavill’s Sherlock is probably a little more likable than Springer’s is on the page.
The 1980s Sherlock Holmes series, starring Jeremy Brett as a period-accurate and utterly hysterical Holmes is streaming on Britbox.
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