'The Mountain Between Us' Is All Glory, No Guts
The Mountain Between Us is an easily digestible romance that might have been more interesting if it were a bit harder to swallow.
There’s hope in the first 15 minutes of The Mountain Between Us that it might be an antidote to the typical Hollywood romance film. With all flights out of Idaho delayed due to a snowstorm, British neurosurgeon Ben (Idris Elba) and American photojournalist Alex (Kate Winslet), two strangers desperate to get airborne as soon as possible, charter a private plane to circumvent the shuttered airlines. In a single, seemingly impossible shot, we watch their plane crash-land on a remote mountain range from inside the fuselage, a camera trick reminiscent of a famous, similar sequence involving a car in Children of Men.
They awake in the biting cold, wounded, their pilot dead, no sign of civilization in sight, and very little food and water to share (the pilot’s dog survives, miraculously). It’s an absolute thriller of an opener that signals we’re perhaps about to witness two of the biggest actors in the business put on the grittiest physical performances of their careers, much like Winslet’s Titanic co-star Leonardo DiCaprio did in The Revenant.
Sadly, the actors don’t stray so far out of their respective comfort zones in this deceptively conventional but perfectly respectable adventure-romance. Based on the book by Charles Martin and directed by Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now 2005, Omar 2013), the film is moving and romantic enough to please wide audiences and those pining for the sweeping mid-century romances that have grown so tragically out of fashion, though it doesn’t stray from convention far enough to attract younger, more adventurous moviegoers. The potential is there for the story and style to go to surprising, unsettling, uncomfortable places (as would be appropriate for a survival situation), but such risks are not taken.
The relationship that develops between the two survivors is deeply felt, and the leads breathe life into roles that, in even slightly lesser actors’ hands, would flatline in minutes. Ben is a veritable Bear Grylls, an expert at finding and fortifying shelter from the wreckage, among the trees, and in cold, dark caves. He’s clearly tortured by some trauma from his past, however, and Alex feels helplessly compelled to pry into her comrade’s personal life by any means necessary, partly to distract her from the direness of their situation and partly because, well, she’s a nosy, line-crossing journalist. The relationship goes through various ups and downs, mostly prompted by the litany of minor calamities and moral victories they experience on their journey together, and for the most part, their eventual bond makes sense.
It’s hard to imagine Elba and Winslet being truly inspired by such uninspired material, but to their credit, they each bring their “A” game because they’re consummate pros and, possibly, they pushed each other to perform at their best. Whatever their motivation, it pays dividends; their efforts keep the film engaging all the way through. Even in moments of duress, Alex and Ben are likable and relatable and unexpectedly fun to “hang out with” as a viewer.
Pleasant and charming as the characters are, the melodrama and "quippiness" that drives their dialogue undercuts the film’s air of danger and urgency, ultimately dampening the story’s sense of stakes. There are certainly moments that feel hopeless and desperate, but what’s missing here is pure, primal fear, the kind of fear you would feel if you were starving, bleeding, and freezing to death in the middle of god knows where.
Abu-Assad’s storytelling is well paced but not as elegant or naturalistic as his previous work. Though Ben and Alex come across as real people, some of their interpersonal breakthroughs seem to come out of left field. A scene early on that sees them share a reconciliatory embrace after late-night argument drives them apart (literally), for instance, feels rushed and slightly forced despite Elba and Winslet’s sincerity in the moment. The natural photography by cinematographer Mandy Walker is more refined, with breathtaking aerial views of the snow-blanketed settings giving the film an invaluable sense of place and scale.
The Mountain Between Us is an easily digestible romance that might have been more interesting if it were a bit harder to swallow. Other than a few moments when the audience isn’t sure whether the characters have fallen asleep, fallen ill, or fallen... period, the film doesn’t dare instill any sense of true pain, terror, or despair. Ben and Alex's love connection is the primary concern at all times, which is why the final act -- which sees them finally choke out their true feelings for one another -- feels more real and raw than any of the near-death scenarios that precede it.