A not-so-brief encounter in the snow-covered Rockies involves not only a struggle to survive but an invitation to romance in Hany Abu-Assad’s adaptation of Charles Martin’s novel, in which the authentic locations war against a hokey storyline. Though the stars are attractive, “The Mountain Between Us” represents too high an accumulation of implausibility to swallow.
Alex (Kate Winslet) and Ben (Idris Elba) are strangers who are inconvenienced by bad weather when trying to fly out of Salt Lake City. She’s a photojournalist desperate to make her wedding the next day, while he’s a neurosurgeon scheduled to operate on a patient who might not otherwise survive. She suggests that they charter a small plane to Denver. Jovial pilot Walter (Beau Bridges) agrees, and off they go. Since they’re leaving in daylight, they needn’t file a flight plan, and they’ll be able to outrun the storm.
Unfortunately, things don’t work out as planned. Not only has the incoming blizzard that closed down the airport altered course, but Walter suffers a stroke in mid-flight. The plane goes down in the mountains, and in the crash Alex’s leg is broken. Ben buries Walter and puts a cast of sorts on Alex’s leg, but needless to say their cell phones don’t have service, and neither passenger bothered to inform anybody of their chartered flight before departure. Stranded atop a snowbound peak, they would appear to face a bleak future.
Things could go a very dark route here—remember “Alive”? But they don’t. Despite a growing shortage of food and an encounter with a hungry cougar (Alex is, luckily, a good shot with a flare gun), the duo debate whether to stay put and hope someone finds them, or take off on foot, hoping to reach civilization. It wouldn’t be much of a movie if they chose the former, and a series of episodes ensues as they make their descent. Eventually they wind up in a deserted house on a remote mountainside, where Ben must decide whether to go on alone, a difficult choice given that he’s already gotten very close to Alex, and not merely for reasons of bodily warmth.
No prize for predicting the outcome here; this is a glossy romance, not a grim tragedy. Nor is it an actual two-hander. Walter is a third character, of course, though it amounts to a cameo—though one with an extravagant death scene, which Bridges pulls off with what might be called scenery-chewing aplomb if the scenery here weren’t so spectacular, especially as shot by cinematographer Mandy Walker. And we do catch glimpses of Alex’s intended (Dermot Mulroney, in an utterly thankless part).
There is, however, a real third star in Walter’s Dog (otherwise unnamed, and played by two canines named Raleigh and Austin), which was also aboard the plane and becomes a companion to Alex and Ben. He actually finds the house where the humans take refuge, and pops up periodically to jostle the plot along and pose for the sorts of reaction shots designed to warm the heart or tickle the funny bone of viewers. His presence makes “The Mountain Between Us” more of a two-hander, four-pawer, or something like that.
Nevertheless, even dog-lovers might feel that the movie strains credulity beyond the breaking point. Winslet and Elba invest their characters with more intensity than the threadbare writing offers, but Alex and Ben remain essentially thin constructs, and the series of adventures they undergo together never take on the urgency required, especially since they pause all too often to survey the magnificent landscape or look at the stars. This must have been a difficult shoot—the images of the duo traipsing through the snow are effective enough to send a chill down the spine of someone in an air-conditioned theatre, and a scene involving one of them crashing through weakening ice into the water below engenders some excitement (indeed, Abu-Assad, who has made a several excellent features in Palestine, demonstrates a real capacity of handling bigger fare here). But if the filming must have been difficult, the story is ultimately too easy—one might even call it simple-minded. That certainly extends to the coda, which ties everything up far too neatly.
Fans of Martin’s book will probably enjoy the film, and those addicted to novels about unlikely romances generally might like it as well. For many, however, “The Mountain Between Us” will represent an unacceptable level of hokum and cliché.