Not The Ideal Holmes
Recently there’s been much talk in the creative community about IPs. The intellectual property rights of characters are being sought out as never before because in uncertain times they come with built-in buyers. The most well-known characters are the most valuable, and they’re usually the simplest and easiest to grasp. That’s what keeps Sherlock Holmes at the top of the table. His adventures, spin-offs and ‘reimaginings’ keep an industry afloat.
You’d have to be a surly curmudgeon not to enjoy ‘Enola Holmes’, a film about Sherlock’s young sister based on a series of American YA novels, but I’m willing to have a go.
I’m in the minority, but I have a point to make. This is Conan Doyle rewritten for Generation Bunty, feisty girl power substituting for Victorian creepiness and fan service pandering to the present while paying lip service to the past. But why not? It’s simply another perfectly acceptable reiteration of Holmes, this time for teenaged girls. Heaven knows the rock-solid IP can stand it. One of my favourite reinventions is the delightful ‘Without A Clue’, in which Michael Caine plays a hopeless Holmes to Ben Kingsley’s secret genius Watson. But that wasn’t pandering to a specific demographic.
‘You must paint your own picture,’ says Enola’s mother (Helena Bonham-Carter), ‘and not listen to what others say, especially men.’ Holmes, who did exactly the opposite, is not impressed. In the most perverse piece of miscasting imaginable, he’s played by iron-jawed Henry ‘Superman’ Cavill. But a now-vile Mycroft is the real villain here because he thinks Enola should have more discipline. He’s right, of course, but who needs to study scientific evidence when you can believe in yourself? The dumping of rationality in favour of the kind of self-belief that leads to anti-vaxxing sympathies is very now, just not very Conan Doyle. Enola has had self-confidence instilled by her mother; you can be whatever you want.
But it’s hard to see what Millie Bobby Brown’s Enola has inherited from her scientific family other than overwhelming self-confidence. She pouts and barks and threatens, confusing assertiveness with rudeness. She solves a few rudimentary clues, ticks people off and stamps her foot at them. ‘The Railway Children’ did this without condescension or sentiment (except where appropriate – the ending), but today’s children need affirmation, and Enola needs lots of it.
Everyone tells us she is special but we see no evidence of this. She certainly doesn’t have her brother’s razor-sharp mind (not that we see much evidence of that in him either). When realising that her mother has gone missing she does not attempt to determine any logistics, the where, when, why, how and who of the case, and though she announces that the game is afoot it really doesn’t seem to be. Determination can’t simply be conveyed by striding about with brows furrowed, complaining.
The period furnishings are of course utterly exquisite yet the dialogue is tone-deaf and anachronistic. ‘It’s not one of my core strengths’ says Enola at one point, sounding like a PowerPoint presentation. She’s been trained in martial arts, of course, a popular obsession of Edwardian girls along with flower arranging and suffrage marches. It’s all delightfully tick-boxy; a very unthreatening boy whips her up a vegetarian meal, and happens to be a lord, which would mark him down as potentially insane in my book.
Enola realises her name is an anagram of Alone, but that’s one thing she never is. She’s forever surrounded by people paying court. Perhaps unearned respect is all Gen Z wants. Enola wants to play the part, so she spends more time choosing an outfit than doing boring old investigation. It’s Holmes as a cosplay game, free of real threat or indeed real life.
Behind the scenes, an unseemly fight broke out when the Conan Doyle lawyers sued Netflix. The author died in 1930 and while most of his writing is in the public domain, ten stories about the detective remain under copyright in the US. In the UK, where rights last for 70 years after an author’s death, all Holmes stories are out of copyright.
The lawsuit argued that Conan Doyle created significant new character traits for Holmes and Watson in the stories written between 1923 and 1927. Holmes was previously depicted as aloof and unemotional, but this magically changed in the last ten stories, and as the film projected the more human Holmes the makers had infringed copyright. Nice try, creeps; the case was dismissed and the lawyers slunk back to their caves.
Anyway, the film’s a hit so there’ll be more to come.