“Based on a true story” has become one of the most overused (and misleading) labels of our time. Still, its application to “Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose” is duly warranted — and no less ridiculous for being so. The “true events” drawn on here remain dumbfounding: In the 1930s, a family living in a farmhouse on the Isle of Man claimed they played frequent host to an octogenarian mongoose from New Delhi whose mysterious powers were hardly limited to human speech. This tale attracted considerable interest from tabloids, tourists and investigators over several years’ course. Belief persisted despite all kinds of doubt-casting evidence, not least the daughter’s admitted talent for ventriloquism.
It’s the kind of wonderfully bizarre anecdote one imagines can hardly miss in screen depiction. Yet somehow it does just that in U.S. writer-director Adam Sigal’s U.K.-produced third feature, itself the sort of curio that sounds delightful … then just sits there, never quite arriving at a cohering narrative or tonal perspective on its peculiar subject.
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With Simon Pegg cast as a well-known researcher drawn to the mystery, the film would seem to have chosen eccentric character comedy as its tactic. But after 96 minutes, we remain uncertain just what Sigal intends here, clear as it is that the results — despite rather handsome period trappings — fall short of any fuzzy goal. It’s the kind of offbeat misfire you nonetheless keep rooting for, hoping somehow it will pull itself together in the end.
Purportedly starting in 1931, the Irvings — a fairly well-off trio who’d moved from Liverpool — began hearing animalistic noises behind a barn door. Eventually they found themselves introduced to one Gef (pronounced “Jeff”), a self-described “earthbound spirit” who was seldom seen, but took the form of a mongoose when choosing to be. Soon others claimed experiences confirming Gef’s existence, though official visitors looking for proof were frustrated.
Among those visitors in 1937 was Nandor Fodor, internationally renowned parapsychologist and psychoanalyst. If straddling both camps ultimately diminished his credibility in either, he was nonetheless a popular published “expert” as well as frequent debunker in the realm of paranormal phenomena. Here, he’s introduced becoming aware of the Irving case when a letter about it from investigative colleague Harry Price (Christopher Lloyd) is read by long-suffering Fodor assistant Anne (Minnie Driver). He is intrigued, if only by the sheer absurdity of the situation.
Soon Nandor and Anne are on-site, greeted by the effusive Mr. Irving (Tim Downie), wife Margaret (Ruth Connell) and 17-year-old Voirrey (Jessica Balmer). All are eager to assist confirmation of the ghost or creature’s existence, despite Gef’s resistance to prior efforts. Anne is disconcerted by the teenager’s demonstrations of voice-throwing, however, while the Irvings’ farmhand Errol (Gary Beadle) bluntly confides to Nandor that “There ain’t no Gef.”
Nonetheless, many locals are believers. Gef (as voiced by Neil Gaiman) has in the past shared his knowledge of their own well-kept secrets, which they’ve found thrilling and unsettling. Just when Fandor’s decided this is all “farce,” the elusive voice behind walls provokes him with privileged intel about his own private life. Prone to imbibe under pressure, our Hungarian expat celebrity ghost-hunter grows maddened by so many contradictory signals, till he’s thrown in the local drunk tank to sleep it off.
There’s certainly the raw material here for a smart, singular mix of satire and whimsy, or whatever Sigal had in mind. But his intentions have grown as unpinnable as Gef somewhere along the line. The film can’t seem to decide how comedic, or mysterious, or suspenseful it wants to be, settling on some tepid in-between point that elicits no particular response, laughter included. It might’ve worked if we understood Sigal wanted Gef to be all things to all people: fraudulent, magical, maybe a necessary reminder of life’s wonders either way. But that kind of ball-spinning stunt can’t function when the movie barely seems capable of picking up the ball, conceptually.
Pegg demonstrates his versatility in a committed, relatively serious performance lacking only the context which might have given it purpose. The film seems to be debunking its own protagonist — who does he think he is to doubt the uncanny, anyway? — yet the lack of a cogent perspective on that muddies any impact. Likewise, his frustrated professional and quasi-romantic relationship with Anne comes off undeveloped at best, wasting Driver’s participation.
Supporting turns are generally well-cast, if given even less definition in their scant scenes. A couple characters (notably shoehorned-in Errol) seem so superfluous, it’s a puzzle why that screentime wasn’t better utilized to expand any of the more integral themes or figures here. Though not a spectacular enterprise, it is very well-served by the contributions of cinematographer Sara Deane, production designer Andy Holden-Stokes, and Lance Milligan’s costumes. Editor David E. Freeman keeps things moving along as a smooth clip — though you may wonder if some ballasting sequences got left on the cutting room floor, or were never shot. The film’s vagueness doesn’t get much help from Bill Prokopow’s very earnest score; a little sonic irony would have gone a long way.
Any movie about a talking-mongoose-related historical incident should offer a bonanza of strangeness, at the very least. But this nice-looking, low-key, talky little film seems hesitant to embrace that or any other quality.
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