Anchored by Brown's sturdy, self-possessed performance as Sherlock Holmes’s teenage sister, this sprightly paean to mothers, daughters and female autonomy often feels like the spiritual sequel to last year's similarly lively “Little Women,” albeit with more jokes, fight scenes and clever interstitial inserts thrown in for the viewer's enjoyment. This rollicking Victorian-era adventure surely isn't canon, but the Baker Street Irregulars aren't its intended audience anyway. Arthur Conan Doyle might have created the universe in which “Enola Holmes” spins its flights of fancy, but that's where the similarity ends.
As the movie opens, Enola is living happily with her mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter), who home-schools her daughter in the liberal arts, along with archery, word games, hand-to-hand fighting, chemistry and fiercely independent thinking. In 19th century England, it's no surprise that Eudoria also seems to be part of the reform and suffrage movements that are agitating for change in that country, activism that she inexplicably keeps from her bright, curious daughter. When Enola wakes up on her 16th birthday to discover that her beloved mother has disappeared, she’s heartbroken. Things look up, then down, when her two much older brothers, the famous Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and the unbearably snooty Mycroft (Sam Claflin), arrive to help.
Adapted by Jack Thorne from Nancy Springer’s popular young-adult series and directed by Harry Bradbeer with brio and rich visual flair, “Enola Holmes” takes its heroine from her attractively crammed estate in the English countryside to London, which is teeming with cosmopolitan variety. Like Armando Iannucci’s recent “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” “Enola Holmes” is an offhandedly diverse production, a flourish that gives it added life and verve. On her travels, Enola meets a handsome son of privilege named Lord Tewksbury (Louis Partridge), another chance for the story to turn the tables. It turns out he's being pursued by nefarious forces, giving Enola the chance to rescue him by dint of her superior intelligence and physical bravery.
Brown is surrounded by a superb ensemble of supporting players: Fiona Shaw brings her signature drollery to her role as a prissy finishing-school headmistress, and Claflin is amusingly fatuous as the insufferable Mycroft. But the movie succeeds or fails on her portrayal of a 16-year-old who has inherited the Holmes family brain (she’s particularly gifted with unscrambling ciphers), but who’s still naive in the ways of the world. Brown plays that contradiction with unstudied ease, delivering dry asides to the camera with just the right amount of cheek, but never devolving into adorability for its own sake. She brings added warmth and game, understated grace to a movie that might begin to lag by the third act — at two hours and change, it feels unnecessarily long — but whose sunny disposition never falters. “Enola Holmes” offers brisk and exuberant escape from the heaviness of modern times, with its leading actress lending her own appealing touches to the journey. When the game is afoot, she's more than capable, not just of keeping up, but winning the day.
PG-13. Available on Netflix. Contains some violence.