Netflix's Enola Holmes may be set in the Victorian era, but it modernizes Sherlock Holmes better than Sherlock. The show, which took dark comedy Fleabag as an obvious inspiration point and transformed certain Holmesian tropes offers a better take on the iconic detective story than Benedict Cumberbatch's iteration.
There are some fictional characters who seem to leave an indelible mark on popular culture, ultimately becoming more identifiable than these creators. Needless to say, these are the characters whose stories are adapted time and again, in successive films and TV series. Sherlock Holmes was possibly the first of these, forerunner of others such as The Saint, Batman, and Superman. Unlike his successors, though, Sherlock exists in a very specific context, both in terms of time and place. He is firmly rooted in Victorian London, and that means any modern adaptation faces some difficult challenges. Will it remain faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original villain, or will it attempt to modernize Sherlock for today's issues? The latter approach is taken by TV shows such as Sherlock and Elementary, placing Holmes in present-day settings.
Netflix's Enola Holmes may be set in Victorian London, but there's a curious sense in which it feels like more of a successful modernization than the likes of Sherlock. This is principally because of the star herself because Millie Bobby Brown's Enola Holmes is essentially a modern teenager who happens to live in Victorian London. There's nothing anachronous about this, because she's supposed to stand out, to be an anomaly that Victorian society doesn't quite know what to do with. Indeed, she was brought up to be that way, by a brilliant mother who was decades ahead of the rest of the world.
Enola Holmes' use of the suffragettes is likewise inspired. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle typically presented a worldview in which England - always England - was the stable center of an unstable world, and almost all Holmes' opponents were either foreigners or had somehow been corrupted through contact with the rest of the world. The suffragette movement shatters this worldview, rather presenting a surprisingly modern society dealing with a tumultuous battle for equality. The suffragettes are often oversimplified in fiction set in this era, but Enola Holmes avoids that approach, instead presenting them as an inchoate movement in which different factions took wildly differing approaches. Eudora Holmes has chosen a radical, militant approach, but it ultimately proves unnecessary, because her daughter begins to change the world with her wits instead. This is the kind of social message usually absent from Sherlock Holmes adaptations, resulting in the world around them feeling static rather than fluid.
The contrast between Sherlock Holmes and Enola Holmes is a fascinating one. Enola calls her older brother out on his privilege, pointing out that he doesn't want to change the world, because it works perfectly well for him. It's an uncomfortable moment, casting Sherlock as a conservative (small-c) who, for all his fame, will never truly transform society. There are striking parallels with the kind of modern-day battles against prejudice represented by the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter, and consequently, Enola Holmes feels like a mirror held up against our society, inviting us to gaze deeply into it and learn some truths about ourselves. It's a remarkable achievement, and it means Enola Holmes is far more than must charming escapism in Victorian London.