Survival romance “The Mountain Between Us” seems straightforward enough — a couple of strangers are bonded forever when they endure a harrowing ordeal after their charter plane crashes on a mountain in Utah. It’s “Alive,” without the cannibalism, and a lot more romance. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear that the romantic fantasy tendencies hijack this otherwise interesting unconventional love story in order to become a sort of bizarre Idris Elba fan fiction. This theme has been completely underscored by the marketing of the film as well.
Certified hunk Elba plays a character who’s just too good to be true. He’s a doctor, he wears fine, expensive outerwear, and he listens to classical music on his headphones. Why does he need to rush back to New York? Because he has to do emergency brain surgery on a child, of course. One would imagine that the source material for the screenplay was a pulpy romance novel. It is, in fact, adapted from a novel, by Charles Martin (though the cover doesn’t appear to feature any shirtless doctors), adapted for the screen by Chris Weitz and J. Miles Goodloe. The film is directed by Dutch-Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad.
Elba’s character Ben, encounters another traveler, Alex (Kate Winslet), while they’re stranded in an airport, a chance meeting that changes their lives forever. She’s a photojournalist rushing to get home to New York for her wedding, and suggests a private charter plane to this stranger she realizes is in the same predicament.
All too soon they’re fighting for their lives on a snow-capped mountaintop in December, after their pilot (Beau Bridges) suffers a stroke while flying. During this ordeal, they become inextricably bonded, learning a great deal about each other, and themselves. If Ben is the brains of the operation, Alex is the heart — he’s systemic and risk-averse, she’s emotional and reckless. Sounds about right for their genders and professions.
What saves “The Mountain Between Us” from pulp are the performances of Winslet and Elba. Winslet has always been a wonderfully grounded actor, and she’s at ease here, despite the extreme circumstances. Elba gets to flex a different muscle as the romantic leading man. His casting is a spot-on choice, and the two share a heartfelt chemistry as two people who genuinely learn to like each other, as much as they might love or hate each other at times.
So why does this horrific situation feel so much like fantasy? Because almost every step along the way is another chance for Ben to heroically care for and nurture Alex, to always run back for her, to pull her out of frozen lakes and spoon soup into her mouth. Hampered with a leg injury, the plucky Alex gets to be the damsel in distress, always saved from certain death by her traveling companion. Despite some of their injuries, this ordeal is made to seem downright glamorous and sexy.
While Abu-Assad captures the mountain landscape beautifully, it’s all presented through rose-colored glasses that make it somehow hard to take seriously. The film shies away from many of the harsh realities to focus on their interpersonal connection, and perhaps that’s what makes the stakes fade away and the authenticity seem an afterthought. “The Mountain Between Us” falls flat, struggling to truly enthral beyond a basic love story.
The Mountain Between Us
Rated: PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, peril, injury images, and brief strong language. Starring: Kate Winslet, Idris Elba, Beau Bridges. Director: Hany Abu-Assad. Running time: 110 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 9, Edwards 14, Edwards 12, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.