The estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sued Netflix this year, arguing that the movie “Enola Holmes” constituted copyright infringement of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes franchise. While court cases in the 2010s established that the character of Sherlock, who first appeared in stories in 1887, is now in the public domain, some later Sherlock Holmes stories are still under copyright. The deciding factor, according to his estate, is emotional. Holmes only showed emotions in his later, still copyrighted stories, lawyers claimed, and since he shows emotions in the new Netflix film, the streamer owed the Holmes estate money.
The estate’s grasping efforts to retain control of its property amusingly parallels the narrative of “Enola Holmes” itself.
The estate’s grasping efforts to retain control of its property amusingly parallels the narrative of “Enola Holmes” itself. The movie uses Sherlock Holmes to represent a sexist and reactionary past, which our young heroine, Enola, must evade and overturn. The Doyle estate, in trying to keep Sherlock for themselves, is also trying to keep him, and the past he represents, from being criticized or changed. The movie ends up being a demonstration of why it’s important to let cultural icons pass into the public domain so they can be reimagined, challenged and sometimes given a good kick in the shins.
Enola, played with cheerful spunkiness by Millie Bobby Brown, is the much younger sister of the brilliant detective Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and the stuffed shirt Mycroft (Sam Claflin). Enola’s mother, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter), raises her alone while teaching her literature and sword-fighting in defiance of ladylike propriety. But when Eudoria disappears on Enola’s 16th birthday, Mycroft insists on sending his young ward to miserable, boring boarding school to wear corsets and find a husband. Enola has to escape her brother’s stifling tutelage, find her mother and along the way rescue the floppy-haired runaway Lord Tewksbury (Louis Partridge), who is being pursued by a mysterious murderer.
Nancy Springer’s 2006 novel “The Case of the Missing Marquess,” on which “Enola Holmes” is based, portrays Sherlock as a blinkered sexist, his formidable powers of observation undermined by his misogynist assumptions. He keeps missing clues because he believes that women are irrational and inscrutable. (“Well, there is no accounting for the ways ladies chose to adorn themselves. The whims of the fair sex defy logic,” he notes in the book.)
The portrait of Sherlock in the film is less acidic; his treatment of Enola is kinder and significantly more empathetic. But he still acquiesces to Mycroft’s restrictive plan. A benevolent patriarch is still a patriarch, and a nicer Sherlock is still a Sherlock who benefits from being a man without having to think about it much.
A benevolent patriarch is still a patriarch, and a nicer Sherlock is still a Sherlock who benefits from being a man without having to think about it much.
Obviously inspired by Brexit and the resurgence of reactionary Englishness, the movie also adds a more direct critique of Holmes’ political commitments, or lack thereof. Eudoria is involved in radical, even revolutionary feminist politics, and the movie takes place against the background of a reform bill that could substantially expand voting rights. Holmes finds all of these political machinations “boring,” which provokes a stinging rebuke from one of Eudora’s Black colleagues, played by Susie Wokoma. “You have no interest in changing a world that suits you so well,” she tells Holmes.
The movie does want to change the world, at least in the limited sense of changing Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is one of the most iconic characters in literature, and he stands for a certain kind of male, moneyed Britishness: brilliant, reserved, unemotional, ruthlessly rational, masterful and mastering. When “Enola Holmes” says that Sherlock is pompous, politically apathetic, casually sexist and not quite as clever as he thinks he is, the film is critiquing both him and the worldview he represents, in which brilliant patriarchs police their inferiors.
And this critique is enabled by the fact that Sherlock, like the vote, now belongs to the public. Copyright law in the short term is supposed to help ensure that creators benefit from their intellectual labor. U.S. and U.K. copyright has been repeatedly extended until it now lasts for 70 years after the death of the author. That’s a huge amount of time, which effectively keeps other creators from arguing with, criticizing or simply responding to important cultural symbols and tropes. Superman, Mickey Mouse, Captain America — those are all shorthand for ideas, world views and cultural stances. When certain corporations control all the stories about, say, James Bond, those corporations also have an uncomfortable amount of control over the ideas and world views that Bond represents.
Of course, copyright restrictions haven’t prevented decades of Kirk/Spock slash fiction. Amazon’s “The Boys” renamed Superman Homelander and cheerfully skewered the character’s implicit nationalism. There are lots of ways to push back against corporate properties without running afoul of the lawyers.
But it’s also true that it means something to have a full length feature film in which Sherlock himself appears as a secondary character whose main function is to be outshone by women in a kind of reverse Trinity syndrome. Enola Holmes shoves the most famous detective in the world aside to show that different people can be heroes in a different Britain, and perhaps in a different world. The Conan Doyle estate believes they own Sherlock, but hopefully Enola will outwit them, too. The youngest member of the Holmes family wants to return the power to the people, and Sherlock Holmes to the people, too.