The Mango Tree is a period coming-of-age tale that suffers from a bland, contemporary lead performance from the writer-producer’s son.Michael Pate has stated that none of the available young leads were “masculine” enough, but his son Christopher’s masculinity emanates more from his age (and permanent five o’clock shadow) than his characterisation. In the classroom scenes, he seems at least four or five years older than some of his peers.
The screenplay (and possibly Ronald McKie’s source novel) has a formulaic feel to it. The airman who gives Jamie Carr a flight in his plane has to be the before-he-was-famous Bert Hinkler. There’s the usual idyllic first love with the school’s French teacher (played with convincing sweetness by Diane Craig), lovable local eccentric (Sir Robert Helpmann, who manages not to overplay the drunk “Professor”), impinging of historic events (the Great War and influenza epic) and sudden deaths. The only refreshing touch is that the inevitable adult bully turns out to be a fire-and-brimstone preacher (Gerard Kennedy is over-the-top, but memorably cruel nonetheless).
Brian Probyn’s brightly lit cinematography captures the feel of warm and dusty Bundaberg, but director Kevin Dobson was making his first film and it shows in some ill-judged slow motion and abrupt transitions (Squizzy Taylor in 1982 was his only other excursion away from directing television).Import Geraldine Fitzgerald (Oscar-nominated back in 1939 for Wuthering Heights) does a grand job of counteracting Christopher Pate’s sore-thumb performance and makes for a formidable Australian matriarch and leading lady.