Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic Sherlock Holmes novels have seen countless adaptations over the last 130 years, from traditional takes on the revered detective to the more obscure pastiches – Japanese animated series Sherlock Hound, which depicts Doyle’s characters as anthropomorphic dogs, springs to mind.
However, none of them have been quite like Enola Holmes – Netflix‘s latest mystery comedy starring Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown as Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes’ much younger, strong-willed sister Enola.
The film opens with a fast-paced, Fleabag-ian introduction to the story’s two central characters – the fourth-wall breaking, precocious 16-year-old Enola and her eccentric, rule-breaking mother Eudoria, played perfectly by Helena Bonham Carter. While neither of the characters exist in Doyle’s original novels, they are both much-welcome additions to the Holmes family, which has been examined through a male-focused microscope for far too long.
Enola is a well-rounded, complex character – played charmingly if a little broadly by Brown – who has spent her childhood learning jiu jitsu, chemistry, an appreciation for literature and anagram deciphering, all unconventional studies for young ladies in the Victorian era. When she discovers her mother has disappeared on the morning of her 16th birthday and her brothers plan to send her to a strict, corporal punishment-practicing finishing school, we watch as Enola taps into her observational and quick-thinking abilities to look for Eudoria whilst evading those trying to catch her.
Along the way, she meets the rather useless and arrogant Viscount Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), who is on the run from his aristocratic family but unaware of a plot to kill him before Enola saves him from a near-death experience. Tewkesbury is portrayed as the “damsel in distress” throughout the film while Enola is seen as an intelligent young woman, able to physically defend herself and others, and as someone who, despite being an independent loner (much like her brother Sherlock), feels obliged to intervene when others are in danger.
Enola is bound to resonate with a generation of young women who haven’t seen a character on screen quite like her before, with director Harry Bradbeer even telling the Press Trust of India (via Firstpost) that he decided halfway through production that he would make the film “for the little Fleabags”.
The idea of Sherlock Holmes having a lesser-known sister isn’t an entirely original one – BBC One’s wildly successful crime drama Sherlock introduced Eurus Holmes (Sian Brooke) in season four, the genius detective’s equally intelligent yet estranged younger sister.
But while Eurus’ introduction was an exciting development in the fourth season, she falls victim to the ‘evil mastermind’ trope, having spent her entire life in a maximum security psychiatric facility after murdering a childhood friend of Sherlock’s, masquerading as various different people to get close to Sherlock and eventually kidnapping John Watson.
In fact, female representation across the various Sherlock adaptations we’ve seen over the years has often been either one-dimensional or short-lived, in a similar way to the female characters mentioned in Doyle’s source material.
Irene Adler, Sherlock Holmes’ lover who he considers the woman, is often portrayed as a conniving sex-pot – she’s played as a femme fatale by Rachel McAdams in Guy Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes film and a sly dominatrix (though with a vulnerable side) by Lara Pulver in the BBC’s Sherlock, while the detective’s housekeeper Mrs Hudson is briefly mentioned in the novels and never explored in great deal in Sherlock (where she’s played by Una Stubbs) despite numerous hints at her mysterious and exotic past.
We get a more detailed look at Mary Watson, Dr John Watson’s wife, in various adaptations, particularly in Sherlock in which – as played by Amanda Abbington – she’s revealed to have been an assassin before changing her identity, until the series opted to revert to Doyle’s text and kill her off.
In Enola Holmes, we’re treated to an array of interesting female characters, from Jiu Jitsu master and suffragette Edith (Susie Wokoma) to the strict yet hopelessly romantic Miss Harrison (Fiona Shaw), with the most developed being Eudoria Holmes – mother to Sherlock, Mycroft and Enola.
Despite appearing in the film mostly through flashbacks to Enola’s childhood, we finally get to know the woman who produced three of the smartest children in 19th century England, including Britain’s favourite detective Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock’s mother is rarely explored in previous adaptations – again, the character does appear briefly in Sherlock, but in Enola Holmes, she looms large as a free-spirited genius, determined to follow her non-conforming path towards a feminist future.
While as a film, Enola Holmes isn’t perfect – there’s a gunpowder plot which isn’t quite resolved by the end of the film while the dialogue is occasionally clunky – but in terms of character development, the Netflix film leads the way for female representation within the Sherlock Holmes universe. Fingers crossed we’ll be seeing a lot more of amateur sleuth Enola, and the film’s wider roster of characters, in future sequels.
Enola Holmes is currently available to stream on Netflix. Check out our lists of the best series on Netflix and the best movies on Netflix. If you’re looking for something to watch, check out our TV Guide.