"The future is up to us." So says Mrs. Holmes ( Bonham Carter) to her fiercely intelligent daughter, Enola ( Bobby Brown), in Enola Holmes, a gender-bending take on the Sherlock Holmes stories. It's an apt metaphor for what the film could mean for the mythic detective.
Much like her idiosyncratic brothers, Enola is a rare Victorian breed — a girl who has a knack for martial arts, cryptograms, and science experiments that involve blowing things up. But when her beloved mother, who has raised her to be an eccentric creature, suddenly disappears, Enola's life is thrown into turmoil. Mycroft (an appropriately humorless Claflin) wants to send her to finishing school, but all Enola wants is to outwit Sherlock ( Cavill) and find her mom. Things get complicated when Enola meets fellow runaway Lord Tewksbury (a winning Louis Partridge).
An adventure that winds across familiar Holmesian settings, from Victorian London to grand English country estates, the film intersects with plenty of 19th-century politics, including a landmark Parliamentary reform bill and the stirrings of the suffragette movement, lending the proceedings real-world stakes while never losing its abundant wit and warmth.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed literary character on film and television. Considering that Irene Adler has long been the only woman able to go toe-to-toe with Sherlock, and that more recent adaptations still have issues when it comes to female representation, it's a breath of fresh air to have a female Holmes leading the narrative (particularly one who outwits Sherlock at numerous turns). Brown is cheeky and spritely in the role. As an actress, she has a self-possessed quality that grounds the performance. Enola is bright and capable, but she's also still a teenager, a woman finding her way in the world in spite of (or perhaps because of) a profound sense of loneliness. Brown calibrates this all with ingenuity, juggling the shades of her emotional state with such aplomb you need Holmesian powers of observation to catch them all.
At this point, Sherlock Holmes is a tried-and-true property, one as ripe for franchise potential as a superhero or a Jedi. But Enola Holmes largely sidesteps all that, its heroine and plot knitted up in feminism and the tough choices women have made throughout history to claim to independence.