Raise your hand if you are / were a girl who loved pretty clothes and also loved running around and probably getting into a little trouble? Then Enola Holmes (2020), one of Netflix’s latest original movie offerings, is for you! Based on a young-adult mystery series by Nancy Springer, this feisty frock flick follows the adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ younger sister in an obvious but delightful setup for a movie franchise series.
Set in 1884, the story kicks off with 16-year-old Enola (Millie Bobby Brown) discovering that her mother, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter), has disappeared. So she calls her older brothers, Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin), for help. Now, I’m on record as not being a big fan of mysteries, plus I know little about the Sherlock Holmes canon. So I was a bit put off by what a dick Mycroft was and how passive Sherlock was, and their interactions with Enola were not setup well with a big exposition about Sherlock being a super-detective (I knew that much, c’mon) and nothing about this jerkwad Mycroft.
Anyway, the story is all about Enola, and when she’s onscreen, it’s great fun and totally engaging. The movie may be aimed at a young-adult audience, but I enjoyed it and didn’t feel talked down to or like it was simplistic. Think along the lines of the Harry Potter movies in terms of tone, without magic. It’s a satisfying romp, and Enola, as a character, rides the line between believable and outrageous just right to feel sympathetic. The mystery plot is mildly entertaining, predictable but not dumb, and felt like a coat hanger upon which the charming characters were lightly hung for display.
Costumes in Enola Holmes (2020)
The costume designer is the award-winning Consolata Boyle, which is another reason to enjoy watching this movie. Enola is supposed to be 16, and her wardrobe teeters between little-girl Victorian and 1880s bustle gowns. She’s an active character who rides a bike, plays sports, fights off attackers, and runs all around, regardless of what she’s wearing. Boyle spoke about the movie’s costumes in Fashionista, saying:
“One thing that was important for us was the feeling that it was created by [her mother] Eudoria. This feeling of a Victorian radical and a free-thinker. That’s how her mother brought her up and exposed her to advanced thinking and reading.”
We first see Enola in a more little-girl-ish outfit of a blue, loosely fitted dress, and Mycroft chides her for not wearing with a hat or gloves. Her hair is down as well, and the whole look emphasizes that she’s still a kid and she’s been running wild a bit under her mother’s non-traditional tutelage.
Flashbacks show how she was raised to be independent, and her mother taught her archery, tennis, and jujitsu, among other things.
Eudoria is only briefly seen in these flashbacks, so her costume details are obscured.
Occasionally, Enola disguises herself in boy clothes, which are always explained as stolen / bought / borrowed from someone else. I have to say, I kind of hate that trope in movies because “borrowed” clothes tend to fit far too perfectly, and here it’s a petite female wearing the clothes of various adult men throughout the movie, and it always looks just right on her.
Let’s just note that Sherlock, as played by Henry Cavill, has such gigantically broad shoulders, and the actor thought he was a Victorian tailoring challenge. He reportedly said:
“I think it was pretty uncomfortable for Consolata [Boyle], the costume designer. It’s like, ‘How am I going to make these clothes fit?’ Like, c’mon, this is not the right build for a Victorian man. You know what? It’s no different from trying to squeeze it into a tight blue suit. In fact, they fit a lot more easily.”
So no, Eudora may have opened the trunk of “S. Holmes” to grab clothes, but whatever she found in there would not have fit her.
When she arrives in London, Enola acquires a complete lady’s gown, skin out, and we see all the historically accurate layers.
Consolata Boyle told Fashionista:
“All of the kind of bits and pieces that go with the [dress], the bag, the little boots, the underwear, the crinoline, the bust enhancer. All of those implements that went into limit women’s lives toward the end of the 19th century, which is obviously going to start to change hugely with the women’s suffrage movement. The way Enola uses them to empower herself — she undercuts it — and it’s really witty and clever. Again, she doesn’t allow all the impediments of late Victorian dress to stop her from kicking some ass. She’s really able to go for it and give as good as she gets.”
“The length is slightly shorter, so we see a little ankle. There’s an element of ‘you see her, you don’t see her,'” Boyle said in that same interview. And, of course, the color was deliberately chosen, Boyle explained: ” I wanted red for courage, strength of purpose, and infallibility.”
I did feel that the neckline of this main red dress was a bit off. A high buttoned-up front would be more typical for daywear, especially for a young lady about town. This looks like a dinner gown or maybe an afternoon reception gown. Minor quibble, and I’m sure this was done to visually open up her face in her big scenes.
On our last Free for All post, we were asked about the jujitsu outfits, so a quick Wikipedia tour showed me that jujitsu wasn’t brought to Britain until 1898 by a man named Edward William Barton-Wright, modern judo as a sport was invented in Japan in 1882, and aikido was developed in the 1920s. So the idea of a women’s martial arts academy in 1884 London is unlikely. IDK if the book series has some backstory about Eudoria knowing a jujitsu master who traveled from Japan and trained her and/or Edith in secret. But the outfits are plausible enough with loose knee breeches, thick stockings, soft flat shoes, and an Asian-style wrap top. It’s a modest and practical look for the time and activity.
Nice cameo Susan Wokoma, who I immediately recognized from her enjoyably smart-ass performance in Year of the Rabbit (2019). She plays Edith, one of Eudoria’s co-conspirators. Her everyday outfit is perfectly proper.
One of the most elaborate costumes in the movie is a mere disguise, because Enola dons a full Victorian mourning ensemble to pretend to be a widow when she visits Basilwether Hall.
She has one more red dress, which I thought was the same as the first red one (the style is the same), but this is made of a nubby tweedy fabric. She also goes back to wearing her hair down. I’m not mad about it — yet.
Enola’s last costume has an Arts & Crafts, almost Pre-Raphaelite feel in style and in shape is a somewhat grown-up version of her first dress. As Consolata Boyle said in Fashionista:
“Her final dress, which is a raw silk — untreated, completely natural — reflects the shape of the first dress we saw her in, when she was on her bike. The shape fulfills and closes the circle. … That shape and that purity of that color — the lack of intense color — and the freedom of that was very important, visually, to me just to end the film, as Enola cycles off into the future.”
And Helena Bonham Carter gets a more interesting costume at the very end!
Have you watched Enola Holmes? What did you think — and will you watch future films in the franchise?
Oh, I’m glad you enjoyed it. We did, too.And even though it’s “young adult,” we would like more, please. We watch a lot of the more intense mysteries coming out of the UK, so a lighter touch was welcomed. Plus, as you point out, it looks darn good!
Henry Cavill always looks awkward in suits. I think he is too thick, not wide but deep in the upper chest.
Look at Dwayne Johnson. It is possible for a big man to get a well-tailored suit.
In fairness, Enola claimed they were Sherlock’s old clothes left in the house from when he was a kid, not his current ones, which makes it more plausible that they’d fit her. That said, I saw another reviewer comment that this should’ve put them about twenty years behind the fashion of the rest of the film, and they’re not, particularly.
I enjoyed it. Enola will be good preparation for Sherlock’s later encounters with The Woman. Sherlock is the most filmed of all fictional heroes (at least in English) and the most fun for writers to play with. Speculations on his life and rearing can be endless. Of course, having HBC for a mother might put any man on drugs. And yes, old as I am, I will certainly look for further adventures of Enola. For an interesting literary juxtaposition of characters, look up Fred Saberhagen’s “The Holmes-Dracula File.”
It looks fun–I think I’ll give it a watch at some point. Everyone I know who’s seen it seemed to enjoy it. I’m sure the jiu jitsu was supposed to be inspired by later use by suffragists. I rather like Holmes, and I will admit I do find Cavill pretty charming, so maybe a light watch when I am working on something.
I liked this movie. I wasn’t sure at the beginning, with the breaking of the fourth wall, but I really liked it. I didn’t like Mycroft. My only knowledge of him is from the BBC production of Sherlock with Mark Gatiss as Mycroft, and I preferred Mark’s portrayal, because he isn’t as much of a dick.
Jiu-jitsu had come into England with the opening of trade with Japan. A particular popular form was called “bartitsu” because it was developed by Edward-William Barton Bright and included elements of stick fighting. Arthur Conan Doyle was a part of that group, which also included Capt. Alfred Hutton. It was the precursor to the modern HEMA groups.
Haven’t seen it, though I like Millie Bobbie Brown. I have little patience for “corsets and high femme attire are evil” storylines. I know it’s subverted in this film, but I don’t know if that’s enough to have me watch.
In one of her encounters with the bad guy, the corset does come in handy and she acknowledges it!
I read the books this spring when the film was announced, and the whole character of Edith is invented for the film – honestly there’s a significant diversion from the arc of the books, but in a way that makes the movie stand alone well.
I get that about letting the movie stand alone, but I was pretty disappointed with the queer/ace erasure by aging up Tewksebury from 12 to 16. (I always read Enola as ace/lesbian/homoromantic asexual, and her friendship with Cecily bordering on what the Victorians called “romantic friendship”). You didn’t need to jam Cecily’s plot(s) into the movie since it was adapting the Missing Marquess, but they didn’t need a standard love interest teen flirting relationship– their original exasperated big sister + naive but well-meaning little brother dynamic would’ve been just fine.
And I think that the Feminist Conspiracy plot takes away from the bittersweet relationship Enola has with Eudora because Eudora isn’t doing something both selfish and inspiring by running away, she’s doing it for the Greater Good, which is something Book!Eudora felt constrained by- that her life only exists in what she can do for others.
I’m happy knowing that people might read the books if they liked the movie, but I don’t like the queer erasure. Eudora’s book plot line arguably wouldn’t work as well in a movie since you don’t get very many clues as to where she is until the end of the series, which doesn’t make for interesting reveals, so I get that change. I don’t like it, but I can live with it.
YA and children’s movies (and Hollywood movies and tv for adults) are way less LGBTQ friendly than animation right now, and I don’t know why. If this were She-Ra or Steven Universe or even Craig of the Creek, there’d be lesbians up and down. We’d be knee deep in lesbians. Lesbians for days. Lesbians day and night all around the clock, lesbianing around. (Mystere a la Tour Eiffel is a great example of how you can do queer love stories in restrictive societies so it’s not just that most of those stories take place in worlds where there is less/no homophobia, and the queerness of romantic friendships and Boston Marriages are 100% part of the Victorian world).
Although Enola’s red dress is inappropriate for daywear, I got the impression that this was kind of the point. Enola isn’t familiar with fashion to the extent that she knows what’s appropriate or inappropriate and the saleslady took advantage of that. She’s a young girl trying to dress as a woman, and I think that comes through the clearest with this outfit. She just went a little too far into prostitute territory. I also wonder if the neckline is like that because Millie wasn’t comfortable wearing something that revealed too much but still wanted a slightly revealing neckline.
In Karolina Zebrowska’s review she showed a picture of women’s exercise clothes which are very similar to the ones worn in the movie but the image was from the 1910s.
I’ve read all the Holmes stories (novels and short stories), so I can say with confidence that Mycroft is not “canon” in this adaptation. Originally, he has all of Sherlock’s smarts. In fact, Sherlock freely admits that Mycroft is smarter, but lazier. He appears to hold a humble government job, but actually, due to his intellectual and analytical gifts, basically runs the British government. I can, however, see why they changed his character to be more of an antagonistic presence.
Thank you for writing about the costumes! Do you think a real Victorian corset would be able to stop a knife thrust?
Jill Bearup on YouTube has a video discussing the knife thrust. The short of it is, depends on the corset and where the stab goes.
In fairness, Sherlock isn’t cannon either. Way too passive, lazy, and emotionally accommodating of his sister.
Yeah, Mycroft’s distance from his original canon self bugged me. If they needed to make him the patriarchal obstacle to Enola, they could’ve at least done it in a way that meshed more with his original characterization – why make him this boringly two-dimensional antagonist who does nothing but sneer and rant? If anything, it’s more interesting if he’s brilliant and eccentric and yet still subject to the prejudices of his time.
From what I remember of the books (read them as they came out in my early-mid teens), I think they upped Mycroft’s nastiness for the movie.
In the series, it’s more that Enola’s brothers are so much older than her and so busy with their own lives–as well as being entrenched in societal norms–that they can’t be bothered to be more involved than sending her off to boarding school. The film added a lot more interaction with her brothers, to Sherlock’s advantage and Mycroft’s detriment.
This comes out most with the money sub-plot, with Mycroft being enraged at Eudoria spending “his” money and giving Enola her nest-egg (him taking it back in the carriage just broke me).
Overall, I look at this movie how I look at The Princess Bride and Howl’s Moving Castle–the films are very different animals from the books, but each enjoyable on their own merits!
I read all the Enola Holmes books and no, there’s no jujitsu and there’s also no feminist conspiracy. There’s also no abusive Mycroft and Enola flatly refuses to cross-dress because that’s what they expect her to do.
Idk it might be the nostalgia talking but I feel like these stories were a lot more clever in how they explored Victorian female identity than this movie. Even if it falls into some digressions about corsetry=dangerous, it also has Enola taking on markers of femininity (including the corset) as armor, not because her “body is a weapon” or other BS excuse to sexualize a female character, but because she finds them practical for disguises and hiding objects on her person, as well as the steel boning literally saving her life on at least one occasion (a real phenomenon). And her disguises and shifting identities work because women, especially feminine women, were/are beneath notice in a lot of contexts.
Enola makes the specific choice to wear widow’s clothes on her way to London because she’s playing on the convention that everyone is expecting her to wear boy’s clothes to run away, which she refuses to do. It’s a point of pride how much she actually can get around all over the place during the era without having to cross-dress– low and high class servant, street rat, typist, widow, nun, cyclist, scholar, matron… All of these ways that she is above and beneath notice. Hilariously, she disguises herself as a particularly fashionable lady at one point and walks right the hell past her brothers, who have tuned out attractive women from their search because Enola is a stick figure with a big nose and mud hair. They mechanically tip their hats and keep talking, she twirls her parasol. It’s awesome.
That is so cool! I don’t know if i will watch the movie but I am definitely going to check out the books now!
Yes, exactly this! The series explores weaponized and empowered Victorian femininity without straying into trite, anachronistic “girl power” tropes.
Personally as someone who read the books I’m disappointed that they didn’t include any Lady Cecily, who is the closest thing to a love interest Enola has (Tewksbury is younger than her and she’s not at all interested).
Enola’s mom’s story is a lot more complex and (I’d argue) feminist than this version. Her just up and leaving her daughter a huge deal for Enola, which isn’t resolved until the end of the series. She carries a lot of anger and hurt at how distant her mother was, even though she admires her for her independence and is grateful for encouraging Enola to be her own person.
ENDING SPOILER for the books.
Eudoria found out that she was dying of cancer and decided that she had lived the rest of her life for others; she wanted her last year or two to be for herself. It’s still a feminist motivation but in a more controversial way- she was a woman acting for her own self-actualization in the face of her approaching death, not for the greater good of all women, which is often more looked down on than women putting their own feelings aside for others. But it’s also selfish in that she abandoned her child, even after preparing her as well as she could. And that’s how it’s framed– Enola can forgive and even admire her mom without erasing the hurt of being left to her own devices, and still be proud that she thrived in such an environment. It’s a lot of nuance, more than “It was for the greater good” IMO. Also pretty badass that she managed to evade ALL 3 of her genius children.
So bonus for understanding that feminists were considered dangerous radicals at the time, but minus for not including sapphic teens who bond over being considered odd, and definite minus for losing a lot of the depth of the remaining female characters. Having flawed women in a story who hurt each other in their own self interest, who have to parse how to feel about each other (admiration, resentment, grief) is something that does not happen in most media, especially mother-daughter relationships.
Also learning jujitsu= how women can be strong is stupid. Though kudos if they included a scene inspired from the real self-defense manuals women circulated for hatpin defense, even if it’s 20 years early. Enola does see her corset as armor in the book, probably the first time I’d ever seen it in a story.
By jujitsu being stupid I mean it’s an overused trope that women have to be unrealistically martially talented to be considered powerful, when the Enola Holmes books were a lot more clever about the era and what could and could not be expected for a girl like Enola to learn and figure out for herself (how she could and could not be an independent woman– i.e. when she sets up a detective agency she pretends like she’s the secretary and she’s got a boss that’s… somewhere and handling the cases himself).
Maybe Eudoria could have tried telling her children what she was doing and why instead of just vanishing on them?
That’s a thought, but Mycroft wouldn’t have stood for it (and perhaps would have had her institutionalized), and Enola would have wanted to come with her (she’s only 14, after all). Oddly enough, the way it happened in the books I think Sherlock would have been the most likely to understand her motivations and just leave her in peace like she wanted.
Maybe the Mycroft of the movie would do that but Conan Doyle’s Mycroft , the one who can scarcely be bothered to rise from his armchair, most certainly would NOT. Both the Holmes boys were completely unconventional and might well have understood Eudoria’s decision. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have made a mess of looking after their kid sister.
I did not like this movie at all. It was by no means bad. It’s just that I’m not the target audience–a teenage girl–and I wasn’t charmed enough by the film to overcome the “kiddie” feel of the movie. Also, a movie and/or play has to be damn-near excellent for me to get over my aversion to breaking the fourth wall. Other detractors for me were that the movie seemed to be a mash up of at least three stories from better-executed films and that it was so over the top and unsophisticated in being a “message movie” screaming, “Hey girls, you don’t have to conform to society’s expectations!”
That said, I think the movie is probably a near-perfect fit for many people in its target audience (and obviously many others as well, based on the positive feedback on this forum). I think I would’ve liked this film if I were a teenager. I’ll probably skip future movies in the series in favor of reading at least one of the books. The casting choices were very interesting; these actors had very good chemistry that is likely to get even better if the film series continues.
Oh I read the books and they’re way more subtle than this- in fact, as I mention in earlier comments, it’s much more feminist for having flawed women (and not in a “I kill people bc I’m tortured inside” way), potentially asexual/sapphic characters and exploring how women existed within Victorian society- how they were limited, ways of getting around it, etc. not simply learning jujitsu and plotting The Feminist Conspiracy TM.
Enola’s relationship with her mom is hands down the most complicated emotional tension between a mother and daughter I’ve read in middle-grade fiction, and arguably even fiction in general. They’re two people who are deeply independent and intelligent, and who love and respect each other, but Eudora resents being reduced to mother and matron and sees Enola and her brothers as reflecting that social constraint. She wants to live her final days in true freedom, keeping in contact with her daughter only through secret messages and gifts of money. Enola wishes Eudora weren’t always arms length and resents her leaving on her own adventure without taking Enola with her. She also deeply admires the level of resilience that Eudora had to have in remaining who she was in a restrictive society, and is grateful for a mother who has taught her to be independent and well-read in a world where those things are cause for alarm in a young woman. And that’s the real conflict- two women who are tied together but who have differing needs, and hurt each other in pursuit of these needs, despite loving each other and wanting the best for their loved one.
In practice, I think that’s way more feminist than The Secret Feminist Conspiracy.
Also they aged up Tewksebury from 12 to 16 so he could be a love interest instead of Enola’s lack-of-love-interest or her romantic friendship with Lady Cecily (romantic friendship= a Victorian term for romantic love between women- not necessarily sexual but often applying to women in what we’d call lesbian relationships, normalized for girls the age of Enola and Cecily– this is where the terms “squish” and “crush” as terms for attraction came from). YMMV on how much you think it applies, but Enola (like her brother Sherlock) always read as ace to me, possibly homoromantic.
So, queer erasure. Not a fan. We need more queer role models for kids in historical fiction.
Well, Addie, now you definitely have increased my desire to read the books. Plus, “The Feminist Conspiracy TM” is hilarious!!
I enjoyed it a lot. Thought it was cute, and Enola breaking the fourth wall to talk to the audience was a charming way to bring them into the action. The costumes were also pretty. But… I wasn’t a fan of their depiction of Holmes. It was “off” from the canon and I wish they’d left him out entirely.
A widows weeds would be a very good cover. Leaving aside the disguising veil, the whole outfit signals Please leave me alone, in a socially accepted way. Wearing it you might even get away with wandering into the male zone of the business district. A normally dressed woman would be a curiosity but a widow would be assumed to be coping with her late husband’s affairs.
Baker Street Irregulars, dyed in the wool Holmes fans, have theorized a large family of siblings for Sherlock including a second brother, older than Mycroft, who inherited and runs the family property and two or more sisters based on a comment made in one story where he says worriedly of his client’s new job that he wouldn’t like to see a sister of his accept such a position. He does not btw say that he could, or would, stop her .
I enjoyed the movie, though not enough to rewatch it, and was frustrated with their inability to settle on when exactly the story was happening. The birthdate given for Enola at the beginning was in the 1880s so it would put the story around 1900, but much of the clothing was more 1880s (like the Viscount’s mother, who would presumably be more up-to-date), the car being available to a schoolmistress was more 1900, the vote in question appeared to be referencing one that happened in the 1880s…it felt like they just sort of made a late Victorian mishmash.
Holmes was born in the mid 1850s, Mycroft was born seven years before that. Holmes was in his mid thirties when the stories begin in the eighteen eighties. Victorian families being what they were, huge and spread out, he could have had a teen aged sister at thirty five, but a half sister by a stepmother is more likely.
Holmes did not talk about his family according to Watson. His first mention of Mycroft came out of the blue during a discussion on heredity. According to Holmes his paternal ancestors were country squires ‘oop north’ where the old Viking strain ran strong, and his grandmother was a sister of the French artist Vernet, ‘Art in the blood is likely to take the strangest forms.’
The movie is set in 1884, it’s just VERY confusingly placed on the “page” where Enola is talking about being born. There’s a token with the date of 1885 at the end of the movie, implying that this is an event Enola attended post the events of the movie.
Thought the movie was cute and the costumes were done really well. I read somewhere that Millie Bobby Brown came to Netflix with the idea to make the film since she was a fan of the Enola Holmes book series. Hopefully there will be a sequel in the future.