Synopsis: Young woman in Victorian London works as a detective. Her brother is the famous sleuth Sherlock Holmes. (Streaming on Netflix)
Young Enola Holmes (a charismatic Millie Bobby Brown) has a lot to contend with in Enola Holmes 2. In 1890’s London she confronts both the difficulty of launching a woman-led business and the dangers of factory work. She’s like a foster kid tossed out without a net. Alright, Enola is a rich kid, but she’s on her own. Her mother, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) is Missing in Action, hiding out from malefactors. We do get to see flashbacks of Enola’s time with her mum in which she teaches her daughter life lessons through Rube Goldberg machines. To my eyes, the lessons are pretty abstract. There’s nothing practical like how to open a chimney flue or access potable water — all necessary in London’s days of yore.
Enola’s brother Sherlock is supposed to be her guardian, but he plays scant attention to her. She could be living in Paris with a lover for all he knows. In fact, one night while Enola is stealthing around London she literally runs into her drunken brother Sherlock after he’s thrown out of a bar. Later on, he does consult with her on a case. But that’s the only way she can hold his attention –something she might want to analyze with an alienist (ie, olden days psychiatrist).
As Enola Holmes 2 begins, our heroine has set up shop as a detective. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, she’s written off because she’s a woman. Without clientele, Enola is on the brink of closing down when a customer walks in who wants her to track down her missing sister. Uh, but the client is a little match girl who is skint. I can’t recall, but I think she offers an apple or refurbished hair ribbon as payment. Since Enola’s first love is detective work, she takes the case; money or not.
The little matchgirl– wait, I should explain what a matchgirl is… First off, kids and women were employed as cheapest labor during the Industrial Revolution. In general, they earned far less than men. Also, the little tykes were literally easier to push around and lacked the maturity to organize labor protests. Child labor in factories and mills sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it? Not to worry! Legislation in 1856 assured (on paper anyway) that children nine years of age and above not work more than sixty hours a week. What a break! Back then kids got plenty of exercise crawling through coal mine tunnels and running mighty hand-crushing looms rather than sitting at school desks all day. And why not work all day Saturday? I mean, cartoons hadn’t even been invented yet!
Matchgirls spent their youth dipping sticks into phosphorus, then snipping and collating the matches. Sounds like a fun craft, right? Girls were routinely physically abused, and fined for talking, dropping matches or using the toilet. The really thrilling part though is what happened after thousands of hours of labor; the delectable phosphorous fumes disintegrated jawbones. If the pain and loose teeth weren’t warning enough, affected employees’ jaws would emit a greenish glow -cool! And Phossy Jaw victims didn’t trouble their fellow tenement dwellers with the hacking coughs of consumption (TB) sufferers.
So! This little matchgirl tells Enola –with her privileged intact jaw– that her “sister,” a comely young ginger woman with whom she lived and worked, has gone missing. As we saw in the first movie, Enola loves to play dress up and go undercover, so she tells the girl that she will slip into the factory as a “worker” to ferret out clues. Of course, Enola has never done a day of work in her life, so she’ll have to depend on her impersonation skills. The next morning it’s off to work with her child client. The factory is full-on Les Miserables with a brutish foreman on the lookout for girls who leave their stations to collapse somewhere near an open window or sneak into managers’ offices. Watch out, Enola!
Ms. Holmes will stop at nothing to solve the mystery. Unworldly, but bold, she crosses London by night where she follows a potential witness into a raucous music and dancehall. As Enola pushes though the throngs, we see chorus girls dance to a truly insipid tune called “Where Did You Get that Hat?” Holy Macaroni, people were truly hard up for entertainment in those days.
Another night, she even has to get frocked-up to crash a ball that possible perpetrators could be attending. She bumps into Lord Tewkesbury who sweeps her into a swanky lavatory for a dance lesson. Do you remember him from the first movie? Refresher: He is a toothsome hetero twink who is agitating for social justice in Parliament. Enola and Lord T are crushing on each other, but she is too career-oriented to take time to date and he is too bumbling to ask her out –or court her or whatever it was they did in upper-crusty Victorian society.
As Enola rushes to find the disappeared woman, the crimes and action pile up with Millie/Enola game for running, fighting and matching wits with her brother Sherlock.
Women and girls had to be extra tough to survive the Industrial Revolution. How are you supposed to live to produce the next generation on 600 calories a day?! As Enola Holmes 2 shows us, matchgirls and matchwomen were actual heroines, going through hell and high water to persevere and make progress. And, privileged though she may be, our fictional Enola Holmes does deserve credit for using her big brain to get a measure of justice for the poor. Further kudos for tackling the uphill climb of running a business as a “lady.” (Something Millie Bobby Brown knows a thing or two about with a credit as a producer on EH2.) Hopefully there will be an EH3 in which Enola’s detective agency gives her lax guardian brother Sherlock’s business a run for its money.
P.S. For some concise and edifying information on child labor in England during the Industrial Revolution, click here. As of 2021, the United Nations reports that one in ten children worldwide are forced into labor, including children who are sexually trafficked.
P.P.S. According to a 2022 study by the International Labour Organization that analyzed worldwide data, women are paid about 20% less than men for work of equal value. A 2019 World Bank Index that analyzed nations’ work environments for women (including work discrimination, pay and paid leave for childcare), only six countries protect women’s equal working conditions: Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg and Sweden.