There are dozens, if not hundreds, of versions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. There are the blockbuster action movies starring Robert Downey Jr., the dark mysteries starring Benedict Cumberbatch, the CBS police procedural starring Jonny Lee Miller, and the SoCal comedy, a looser adaptation, starring James Roday Rodriguez. Yes, Psych is based on the Holmes/Watson dynamic. He’s got the powers of observation and deductive reasoning! Even the medical drama House, starring Hugh Laurie, was a Sherlock spin-off. So it was only a matter of time before we got a gender-flipped version (points to Elementary, though, for giving us a female Watson and Moriarty).
Enter Enola Holmes, Netflix’s new movie based on the YA book series by Nancy Springer that’s now streaming.
Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown) is the younger sister of Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft Holmes (Sam Claflin). BBC fans might remember the Holmes boys having a little sister in that series too—but while Eurus was a brilliant psychopath, Enola is first and foremost a spunky teen. She rides a bike, falls off, pops back up again. Never seems to get her feelings hurt and relishes every opportunity to talk back to her detractors. Raised and educated by her widowed mother (Helena Bonham Carter), Enola is well-read but unkempt, a good fighter, and fiercely independent. Her name spelled backward is “alone,” and that’s how she works best. Her main skills, budding-detective-wise, are a knack for codebreaking and a penchant for disguise.
When Mrs. Holmes disappears the morning of Enola’s 16th birthday, the teen’s somewhat estranged brothers are sent for, and Enola assumes that Sherlock will track their mother down in no time. But he doesn’t seem to be in much of a rush—Mrs. Holmes clearly left of her own free will—and worse, Mycroft plans to ship Enola off to boarding school. So Enola follows her mother’s clues to a hidden wad of cash and escapes, assuming she’ll find her mother in London because, I guess, that’s where missing people go. On the train she meets a young viscount, also escaping the rigid life his family has planned for him, and despite her best efforts to stay focused, his problems soon become her own. The game, as they say, is afoot.
What happens next is an adventure, a romp through Victorian London with a few smart twists and a delightful heroine. Enola doesn’t just narrate; she frequently breaks the fourth wall to look at the audience and catch us up on her plans. Unlike the aloof smartypants Sherlock or snooty old-fashioned Mycroft, Enola is warm and kind and incredibly easy to root for. As she helps the young Viscount Lord Tewksbury, we get to see her use jujitsu, hatch a clever escape from her finishing school, steal a car, and in a roundabout way, help get a reform bill passed in Parliament. There’s a sweet love story and plenty of humor. A bit predictable, but so what? It’s fun, and Cavill and Claflin have strong comedic chemistry as they chase their impossible little sister to and fro.
The mystery of the missing mother is where things get sticky. (Consider this your spoiler warning.) Shortly after arriving in London, Enola pieces together that her mother was a member of a radical suffrage group. They’re not just organizing for women’s right to vote but are, it’s implied, hoarding explosives to do what might be called civil disobedience, or political property destruction, or you know, domestic terrorism. It’s unclear whether Mrs. Holmes’s “plan,” whatever it is, is to hurt people or just buildings, but it’s dangerous enough that she left Enola behind to keep her daughter safe. By the end Enola accepts that her mother disappeared for some kind of greater good. The movie seems to be on that side as well, but there’s an uneasy tension underneath the politics of it all. On the one hand, thanks to the viscount, a vaguely defined but, in the canon of the script, important reform bill has just passed into law. Which would seem to suggest that Mrs. Holmes’s radical version of political agitation isn’t strictly necessary; why bomb for equal rights if you could get them through diplomacy? On the other hand, if there’s no chance that women will be able to vote without some kind of violent demonstration, that would seem to undercut the victory that is the reform bill. Either the system can be reformed from within or it can’t, but the movie can’t seem to decide whether it’s better to be a radical or a reformer. I realize this is the same question many of us are facing right now: leftists versus progressives versus liberals versus moderates. What’s the right way to effect change? What if the “best” way isn’t quick enough? The movie presents but doesn’t really answer this dilemma. And while I’m glad there’s no pat lesson at the end, it’s still kind of a surprise. Mrs. Holmes is…going to blow up some part of London. I mean, like, wow.
Similarly, Enola is presented with two choices for making her way in the world: as a lady, or as herself. Sherlock explains to her the ways a finishing school education could be of use in her detective work, and her headmistress reminds her that the fiercely independent Mrs. Holmes got married too. There’s a case to be made for Enola to work within the system, doing what a woman is “supposed to” do. But she’s got money and connections, like a feminist get-out-of-jail-free card, and by the end she’s living independently. It’s a happier ending for her than for her mother, one that sets up the possibility of a sequel I’d definitely watch.
Fans of the O.G. Sherlock may or may not find enough in this iteration to satisfy them: Inspector Lestrade makes an appearance, but Dr. Watson and the rest of the usual gang are set aside. (Maybe we’ll meet them later?) And I have to warn you, if you’re looking for a true mystery, this isn’t one. Enola is not her brother. She doesn’t make deductions or notice details others miss. She only finds her mother when her mother wants to be found. At first I thought this was laziness on the screenwriter’s part, or maybe they just didn’t trust a younger audience to follow all the clues. But by the end I saw the merit in giving Enola her own set of skills: codes, costumes, martial arts. This isn’t a world where Sherlock Holmes is a girl. This is a world in which Sherlock Holmes exists, and so does his spunky sister. Different doesn’t mean worse. In fact, maybe it’s better to get a fresh kind of character instead of yet another friendless genius.
And if you’re still craving some old-school detective deduction after you watch, well, there are the Robert Downey Jr. movies, and the Benedict Cumberbatch show, and Elementary, and Psych, and House, and…
Elizabeth Logan is a writer and performer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @lizzzzzielogan
Originally Appeared on Glamour