If Adam Sigal’s latest film were an academic article, it would pair its’ attention-grabbing title with a more explanatory and prosaic subtitle, something along the lines of Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose: An Investigation into Reality, Belief, and Possible Deception. There is a straightforward story, based on real historical events, being told in this film, but there’s a lot of meta in it as well. The latter creates a distancing effect which invites the viewer to form their own opinion about the genuineness or lack thereof of just about everything they see and hear.
In the 1930s, the Irving family, living on a farm on the Isle of Man, claimed a talking mongoose named Gef (pronounced “Jeff”) was living in a cave near their home. Gef (voiced by Neil Gaiman) was reportedly a helpful little fellow, warning them if strangers approached the house and waking people up if they overslept, and the family showed their gratitude by feeding him fruit, biscuits, and chocolate. When strangers were about, however, he could play hard to get, ignoring people when they tried to summon him, then popping up unexpectedly and revealing knowledge of things they thought they had kept private. Gef also called people on the phone, because apparently he was a thoroughly modern sort of mongoose.
Predictably, the British tabloid press ate all this up, and various people visited the Irving family farm home in hopes of glimpsing this marvelous creature for themselves. One of those visitors was the Hungarian-born British parapsychologist Nandor Fodor (Simon Pegg, who seems to be channeling an Eastern European version of Willem Dafoe) of the International Institute for Psychic Research. He’s the film’s dominant character, despite being a faintly ridiculous person who takes himself and the “science” of parapsychology very seriously indeed.
Fodor was warned by his colleague Harry Price (Christopher Lloyd), who had visited the Irving family farm, that the daughter of the family is an expert ventriloquist. You might think that would be case closed, but since this isn’t the world’s shortest movie, Fodor has to see/hear Gef for himself. So it’s off to the Isle of Man, accompanied by his research assistant Anne (Minnie Driver), whom he treats so badly it’s hard to see why she continues to work for him. Of course, she probably didn’t have a lot of options—professional opportunities for women were limited at the time, and the Great Depression limited lots of people’s choices. So it may simply be that, like Archie acting as Nero Wolfe’s legman in Depression-era NYC, that she is making the best out of what life has presented to her.
Since the film spends about half of its’ time among the Irvings, it’s a good thing they’re a pleasant and interesting lot. Mr. Irving (Tim Downie), both gracious and glib, is Gef’s biggest fan. Mrs. Irving, also charming, has a talent for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, apparently by accident. Daughter Voirrey (Jessica Balmer) gives Anne an impressive demonstration of her skills, apparently not concerned that to do so might encourage the researcher to settle on an entirely rational explanation for Gef. Housekeeper Errol (Gary Beadle) is calm and competent, and also the one character willing to give Fodor the reading he deserves.
Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose is a real marmite movie. If you buy into its basic premise, you’ll probably find it fascinating and enjoy the 96-minute trip to a time even stranger than our own. That goes double if you enjoy arch humor and/or have a taste for excellent period reconstruction, in this case including costume design by Lance Milligan, production design by Andrew Holden-Stokes, and set decoration by Sue Parker. On the other hand, if you aren’t charmed into entering into the spirit of this movie, you’ll probably find it both preposterous and interminable, an experience analogous to being trapped between garrulous bores on an airplane flight. Sad to say, I found myself of the latter opinion. | Sarah Boslaugh