The great sleuth’s savvy teenage sister, new to Netflix, would give everyone from Basil Rathbone to Ian McKellen a run for his money
What is it about Sherlock Holmes that holds such enduring fascination for people? After nearly 140 years, you might think a tweedily eccentric, pipe-smoking Victorian detective might have worn out his pop-culture welcome. Yet the updates, sendups and spinoffs of Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal character keep coming – some delightful, some dire, but never enough to deter the next one. If Will Ferrell and John C Reilly’s clomping, witless, financially disastrous parody Holmes & Watson (it’s on Now TV, but why do that to yourself) couldn’t kill the mythos two years ago, it’s safe to say it’s going nowhere.
That’s just as well, since its latest iteration is considerably more fun. On paper, Netflix’s new film Enola Holmes sounds like it could go wrong in several directions; as an adaption of Nancy Springer’s YA literary franchise centred on the detective’s sparky kid sister, the risk of naff, condescending girl-power-by-numbers is high. Yet thanks to Fleabag director Harry Bradbeer’s zippy steering and the smart but not overly cute presence of Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown in the lead, it’s brisk, bright family viewing that parents and kids can watch equally happily.
If ubiquitous screenwriter du jour Jack Thorne fills in the feminist messaging with Sharpie-thick nuance – perhaps, of all projects, a woman’s pen was called for here – he’s constructed a pleasingly knotty old-school mystery around the disappearance of Enola’s mother (a reliably dotty Helena Bonham Carter), which casts her into the care of her estranged older brothers. Henry Cavill makes a near-unprecedentedly suave Sherlock, but he’s a background figure by design: Enola does all the investigative legwork here, and very engagingly at that.
If it gets you or any other family members in the mood for a Baker Street-themed marathon, meanwhile, the streaming world has you covered. Just sticking with Netflix, you can find four series of Sherlock, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s nimble, superbly acted BBC remix of the adventures, which is still going strong a decade on from its debut.
Netflix also has the film that, according to Gatiss and Moffat, most directly inspired their interpretation. Billy Wilder’s wry, grown-up The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, with its wistfully unspoken queer undercurrent between Robert Stephens’s Holmes and Colin Blakely’s Watson, was rejected by many critics in 1970, but holds up elegantly today. It makes a fine 70s double bill with another well-dressed, cocaine-laced bit of Hollywood Holmes revisionism, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (on Amazon), which was more acclaimed in its time, but less remembered today.
Holmes purists, of course, can’t do better than the first two films in the Basil Rathbone-starring Hollywood film series that kicked off in 1939. Only recently, I sang the praises of The Hound of the Baskervilles (on Amazon), but its follow-up, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Amazon again), is just as lushly art-directed and straightforwardly entertaining. After that, the franchise was handed from Fox to Universal, which reimagined them as 1940s-set B-movies, to diminishing effect. But Rathbone’s performance remained definitive, to the extent that he even inspired the name of Disney’s rodent-ised version of the sleuth in their delightful animated feature Basil the Great Mouse Detective (on Disney+) – perhaps the greatest liberty ever taken with the character on screen, and one only a curmudgeon could deny.
In any case, Disney’s critter cartoon arguably landed closer to the spirit of Doyle than Guy Ritchie’s absurdly over-cranked 2009 blockbuster Sherlock Holmes (both Netflix and Prime), the most popular of many attempts to fashion the detective’s exploits as a broad comic jape. Beside it, Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley larking about in Without a Clue (1988; on BritBox), or the cheerfully Spielberg-influenced but somewhat dated 1985 spectacle of Young Sherlock Holmes (on Google Play) look subtle.
If you want to restore some dignity to the character, then head to iTunes for Bill Condon’s solemn, elegiac Mr Holmes (2015), starring an excellent Ian McKellen as the detective in his dotage, unravelling lingering mysteries in his mind as the end approaches. It’s a million miles removed from the youthful frolics of Netflix’s new adventure: there’s a particular Holmes for everyone.