Show me your message don’t tell me your message – or ‘Enola Holmes & The Mystery of the Mis-Written Movie Script’
*** SPOILER WARNING – Contains plot details for Enola Holmes and, oddly, Matilda ***
Show don’t tell. This is said so often that it seems obvious. However, it is essential to keep it in mind, especially when it comes to the screen, and with good reason. The audience are much more likely to believe something they see than what they are told.
This idea is obviously important when it comes to building your main characters – don’t spend the whole film telling me your main character is a genius, show me they’re a genius by having them do something clever. However, it is just as important in your world building and secondary characters. If these aren’t properly crafted it doesn’t matter how well you write your main character, what they do and what they represent will feel thin if they are unsupported by a world that doesn’t back that up. And to do that convincingly you have to show us in the action. If you spend the film telling your audience one thing but showing them something else, they may pay attention to the former but, emotionally, they will take on the latter. What you show us is what we will take home.
A good example of this disconnect is the recent Netflix film Enola Holmes. Based on the novels by Nancy Springer this film has lots of potential to properly entertain and also tackle some interesting themes. One of the main themes, if not the main one, is the struggle women face in a prejudicial and repressive society. However, despite how much the film tells us how hard women find it to exist in their world what we are shown is very different. This results in the film feeling unsatisfying In the end the message of the film feels undermined as the struggle we see our heroine goes through isn’t actually that hard despite how much we’re told she’s fighting against.
For this film it is particularly useful to look at the secondary characters and world building. Our two leads, Enola and her mother Eudoria, are defiant fighters against the norm. Their behaviour and attitudes are there to show us how the fight is carried out. The world around them shows us what they are fighting against.
So, let us begin with a major part of the world building - the issue of women’s clothes. We have two whole scenes during the first act of the film where women’s fashions of the 19th Century are mocked – the first scene with Miss Harrison and the clothes shop. These take up around 4 minutes of run time, about 4.5% of the film.
In these scenes women’s clothes are said to be restrictive. A symbol of “repression”, to wear them is to be “imprisoned”. We have it nicely set up: the difficulty of female clothing. This is a good idea. It is a clear way of showing the outside world impinging on the liberty of our heroine – she is forced into an outfit that literally restricts her movement and stops her being who she wants to be.
We then have her conduct an entire fight scene in the same outfit. She battles Linthorn for three minutes of screen time in this ‘restrictive’ and ‘imprisoning’ outfit. At no point does the outfit stop her from fighting. The main obstacle in this scene is Linthorn’s superior strength, as he is an adult man. At no point do we have, for example, the dress getting in the way, the corset stopping Enola from breathing properly, or her silly boot ribbons, that are highlighted earlier, tripping her up. In fact, the outfit is shown as an advantage as it protects her from getting stabbed.
We have this problem repeated at the end of the film. She fights Linthorn again, and bests him, wearing the clothes of the repressive finishing school. Now, in principle, there is no problem with seeing a girl in a dress take down a man. But there is if you have given nearly 5% of your film to how traditional girls’ clothes are imprisoning and a symbol of society’s repression of women.
An alternative would have been to have Enola limited by the dress in her first fight - the standards for women are stopping her being her true self. She then tears the bottom of the dress off, or loses the shoes, or something, and she manages to fight well enough to fight him off. In the rematch at the end of the film she wears the clothes she chooses; she has taken on another disguise or she has majorly altered the ridiculous school outfit to free her up (i.e. more than just taking the collar off). We then have our female protagonist choosing her outfit, her terms, to stand up in and she then shows how badass she is by taking down a supposedly physically superior foe.
Instead what we have is a long talk about the difficulty and then several presentations that make it look easy. This creates a massive disconnect and makes the ‘difficulty’ point redundant.
This inconsistency of what we’re told and what we’re shown is also seen in the presentation of the two other major women in the film – Edith, the tea lady and fight instructor, and Lady Trelawney, mother of Viscount Trelawney.
First, Edith. She has a very powerful speech about power and politics in her scene with Sherlock. She tells us very clearly how hard it is to be a woman and how easy it is to be uninterested in power if you are a man, and a man with wealth and status like Sherlock. In her own way, she herself is shown to be a powerful character. She runs her own business, she is a teacher, a fighter, and a revolutionary. This is excellent, in some respects. We are shown a strong, intelligent female character, which are often hard to be found in period films.
However, this completely undermines what we are being told about the world we are in. Nowhere in the way her situation is presented in the film are we shown that she is fighting against an oppressive system.
She is first introduced not as a charlady but as a teacher and a fighter – a person of authority and physical power. This could come as a surprise, a reveal of her true self underneath the disguise of the lady who runs the tea shop, but instead it is presented as a given that this is how things are.
Cinematically, she is also in control. In the conversation scene with Enola she is the main driver. She starts and ends it. She gives and withholds information – about Enola’s past, about Eudoria’s whereabouts – and she gives advice. In storytelling terms, the female character is dictating how the cinematic world works - when we start, when we finish, what we know.
This is, of course, a scene between two female characters – one of them has to be in control of it. Let’s look then at the scene she has with a male figure: her conversation with Sherlock.
In this scene she is in control again. She dominates it. She has the most lines, patronises Sherlock, insults his brother, and again dictates when the scene ends by leaving the room. She is in control of that space and the conversation. This is a world where the men are meant to be running things and yet the woman is running the world we are watching.
She is also talking back to a male character with impunity. There is no risk in her speech, no stakes in her telling truth to power. This is meant to be dangerous stuff she is talking about but here she puts a man is his place and then leaves. It is easy. According to the world we’re told we’re in, it shouldn’t be. We are shown that she operates as she wishes in all her scenes. That is her story. She tells us it’s hard but we never see her struggling against something hard.
Along with Edith herself, the context we find her in contradicts what we’re told. Her teashop is seemingly meant to be a clandestine space, a secret refuse for progressive women in society, stocking illicit and illegal books. Indeed, Sherlock threatens Edith with the power of the government to shut her shop down it is so against the norm.
However, nothing about the way the shop is shown makes it the place it is suggested it should be. The banned books are on clear display – Edith even invites Sherlock to take one – and the secretive fight club upstairs is so obvious that it shakes the ceiling. Now the ‘jujitsu not jam making’ education of Enola is set up as near immoral by the film world’s standards. However, women are so obviously engaged in this bad education they are causing a ruckus in a publicly accessible teashop, an activity jovially dismissed as just ‘noisy bloody women’. These are meant to be seditious fighters against the status quo not the two flatmates upstairs having a row.
Once we enter the school this openness is reenforced, most clearly in that Enola walks right into the room. There is no password, no secret door. The school is also next to a room where the secret organisation is keeping some of its dynamite. The dynamite for the extremely secret plan that has layers of word games to protect it. This should be an extremely secret and clandestine space and should therefore be doubly hard to get into. It isn’t.
Because we see all this activity not making an effort to keep itself secret it implies that there are no stakes in it being discovered. This then tells us there is no danger about fighting against the world and therefore the world is not frightening. This means any victory against it isn’t that great.
Next, let’s look at Lady Trelawney. Unlike Edith she has some power, being an aristocrat, but is still a woman. However, in her main scene at Basilwether, she is, like Edith, in control. She is the first to talk to Enola and she is also the character with the most lines in the scene. She controls the words that we hear and is on camera the second most after Enola. Two women are holding our attention for most of this scene.
Lestrade enters mid-way through and tries to impose male control over the conversation. However, Lady Trelawney blocks this and tells him and Enola to leave – “this circus is not appropriate for Basilwether...I don’t care if you’re from the houses of parliament you will leave this instant.” We yet again have a woman running the scene, literally instructing men where to go and making fun of them. As far as it seems for Lady Trelawney, it is not hard to be woman in these scenes.
Why should we believe Edith when she says that her gender has no power when we see these two women running the scenes that they’re in? When they are running the part of the world that we see, we extrapolate that this is the norm in the part that we don’t see, no matter how much we’re told it’s not true.
All this isn’t to say that there is no representation of repression presented in the film. There are forces to fight against. The figures of Mycroft and Miss Harrison and her finishing school loom large throughout the plot of the film.
Mycroft is the chief antagonist in the film and we do see him wielding his societal power. He tells Enola what to do, he makes her cry in the scene in the carriage, and gets her to the school eventually through his use of his wealth and influence – seen in the reward for her return and the barbershop scene with Lestrade, the chief of police, and the financial reward mentioned. He is powerful, wealthy and unpleasant.
But how much of an actual threat is he? Mycroft is presented as a cartoon monster. He’s not a real person. He shouts, he scoffs, he preens about. In his second scene in the film he picks up J.S. Mill and sneers – ‘feminism’. In case we missed this, he mutters later about reform and uneducated voters. We have our very obvious bad guy here. All he does is complain and this renders him weak as he doesn’t do anything to fix his complaints. On top of this he is avoided for most of the film and when we do have a demonstration of his power, in the sending of Enola off to school, it is making a small girl cry by shouting at her. The act of a bully. At no point do we have him ordering other people about and being deferred to as a respected member of society (other than by faceless servants). In his secret meeting with Lestrade in the barber’s he is caught out that Enola is his sister and loses his temper. Not a man in control.
Mycroft is really presented not as the norm but the extremist buffoon. We can see this if we compare his attitudes to the way other men and society treat women in the film. When Enola comes in disguise to Basilwether she is turned away not because she is a woman but because she could be a journalist. It is not her gender that is denying her access but the fear of gossip.
In this scene she also meets Lestrade for the first time. Immediately he treats Enola as an equal, vying against her for the title of chief Sherlock nerd. He speaks of her with respect and near awe in the barbershop as a lady with ‘extreme poise’. At the end of the film he does passively suggest Enola’s inferiority in teasing Sherlock with her victory but he has accepted the findings from Enola, not the titled lordling that she was with. She is given credit for the case by him.
In Sherlock’s own attitude to his sister he basically apologises to Enola at all times for her treatment, offers her advice ‘detective to detective’ and his pleased “ha” at the end, after being bested by her, shows he has come to respect her. His interactions with Edith, though not completely equal, are not awful. He does use the misplaced word “mischief” and he is patronising in tone. However, he listens to her, takes her insult – “try not to sound like your brother” – as an insult, suggesting that her opinion matters to him, and takes her chastising of him. He has a female character put him in his place and accepts it.
Also, the use of Mycroft as an insult to Sherlock shows that he’s someone Sherlock doesn’t want to be. Surely, he is someone he should want to be, if he’s the representative of respectful society.
Now this wouldn’t matter much if Sherlock was the bohemian outsider of the books or shown to be the outsider that people tell us he is – see Mycroft’s displeasure at his brother’s effect on the family name. However, he is tall, good looking, well dressed and a clear celebrity – look how the Tewkesburys react in wonder when Enola lies about being his secretary and the way that he is introduced at the beginning of the film. He walks easily into Scotland Yard and talks directly to the chief inspector. This is the respected man in the universe and he’s not a repressor of women. At worst he starts off disinterested but, in the end, comes to respect his sister. That is the man people look up to and thereby that is the societal standards we’re shown – one that easily comes to respect women. Not Mycroft. Mycroft is the deviation from the norm, rather than the norm that Sherlock and Enola are trying to break away from. The only clear misogynist and patriarch we have in the film is an outsider and a cartoon.
The other threat we have is Miss Harrison and her finishing school. She is unpleasant and physically abusive. She is set up as someone you do not want to spend time with. But this is mainly because she is set up as a fool. She is in love with Mycroft, on a ridiculous level. She fusses and flaps about appearance and diet. She has no force about her - even after the slap Enola has no problems talking back to her, rendering the threat of physical violence empty as it has no consequences. We never see Miss Harrison held up as a respected figure by anyone other than Mycroft – who we have already seen is not a character actually representing the mainstream.
Added to the thinly drawn Miss Harrison, her terrible school is actually not so terrible. It is set up as an awful place that Enola begs to avoid and has to be rescued from but at no point is she broken by it or close to being broken. Instead it’s silly. Yes, the activities that were expected of women in the 19th Century were ridiculous, but the film keeps them as solely ridiculous. They are just annoying tasks that Enola has to just deal with not ordeals to go through. At this point in the film we are at the end of Act Two – the moment when our protagonist is at their lowest ebb. Enola’s lowest is she is threatened with being locked in a room in one scene, is allowed a long conversation with her brother which boosts her spirits in the next, and then is rescued in the next one after that. That ebb seems pretty high.
The rescue is also very easy. Miss Harrison is bested by a simple basket trick that takes no time to execute. Tewkesbury barely talks to her and Enola slips out the window. This place has been the great threat of the film. Where is the excitement of getting out of this awful situation? Where do we get to see Enola’s genius? Nowhere. The enemy is defeated by having a ten second conversation and climbing out a window. The caricature left in the basket seems an apt way to sum up the whole event. Big head but no real substance supporting it.
The big problem with these two villains is that they are not frightening. There is no triumph in defeating them. They hold no respect in their worlds and nor do they ever, really provide much obstacle to the heroes. Mycroft is never truly scary other than when he’s a bully. Apart from the scene in the carriage, Enola isn’t frightened of him. Out of his presence she mocks him through caricature drawings and comical impressions in the dress shop. In his presence she begs him to not be sent to school and then, when he refuses, she ignores him and asks Sherlock. Miss Harrison is ridiculous and easily escaped from.
Put simply, there are no stakes whenever they are on screen or when Enola is facing off against them. It is always easy. If it is easy to defeat the forces of the patriarchy, then the threat of the patriarchy can’t be too serious. It can’t be too difficult to be female in this world if the forces holding you down are presented as this flimsy.
Take, as a contrast, another villain from a story about a clever girl – Miss Trunchbull from Matilda. She is a true monster. She is terrifying, for everyone. She is a repressive force throughout the book, controlling Miss Honey, emotionally and financially, and treats the children horrendously. She is a genuine menace. The final scene in the book with the chalkboard and reducing her to a terrified mess is a massive triumph against the odds. There are no obstacles anywhere near matching Miss Trunchbull in Enola Holmes. All the odds are shown to be in the heroes’ favour. All the obstacles are, generally, overcome fairly easily and the generators of those obstacles are so ridiculous that the stakes involved in battling them never get very high.
How you build your world around your central characters really affects how we emotionally react to their story. The potential for Enola Holmes to show us how difficult it is for women in its world are there. We’re told about them several times. But we never see them. Make the villains frightening; make the stakes higher for women to speak against them; show the strong-willed secondary female characters as being ‘put in their proper place’; show how the rules of the world, represented by the clothing they cocoon women in, actually restrict them; show the fight. Without this it doesn’t matter how much we are told how difficult it is the evidence of our eyes tells us this is not the case. This mismatch undermines the message of the film, undermines the triumphs of the protagonist and, in the end, makes it less enjoyable than it could be. Basically, show don’t tell.