The Mountain Between Us, a tale of two strangers (and a charming dog) who find themselves stranded in territory that’s foreign to them after a plane crash – the everlasting landscapes of the Utah wilderness – is the second American movie directed by Palestinian auteur Hany Abu-Assad, coming five years after the critically maligned direct-to-video actioner The Courier.
His sophomoric English-language picture is less foreign territory to him, with love and human drama at the centre of it, much like his superb Palestinian films Omar and Rana’s Wedding, so is it closer to that class of filmmaking than his previous Western effort? Well, it’s certainly better than The Courier.
Winslet and Elba make the effort
Part of this is due to Kate Winslet and Idris Elba. No offense to Jeffrey Dean Morgan and co., but a director can relax a little if it’s these two British heavyweights at the front and centre of their film. Winslet is well-known for her contributions to the romance genre and has fun in the role of American photojournalist Alex Martin, rushing home for her wedding after shooting neo-Nazis (with her camera) for The Guardian. She’s energetic, even when she’s temporarily paralyzed after the crash, has dryly amusing interactions with the dog and has a huge curiosity for Ben’s relationship with his significant other.
Ben is the British brain surgeon portrayed by Idris Elba, who’s rushing back to perform a major operation. They’re both heading for the same city and, when their flight is cancelled, the two of them take a charter plane which crashes in a spectacularly shot sequence, killing the pilot (Beau Bridges). Elba is game for the role, also his first rodeo as a romantic lead, doing a fine job as a man who’s up to the task of using his expertise to help himself and his evidently spellbound partner-in-crisis survive.
He has a doleful romantic history, the information of which is gleaned slowly throughout the course of the film in conversations unrelated to their current circumstance. There’s an even split for how many of these conversations add interesting dimensions to the characters and how many are just plain mundane, and not many at all that advance their prospective romance in an intimate way.
Disastrous decisions and consequences
It’s very convenient that at least one of them on board can nurse themselves and those affected back to sufficiently good health for when the plane goes down but what isn’t convenient is the pair’s decision to be flying out for these incredibly important events of their lives at the last minute. Cult filmmaker Robert Downey Sr once stated that the one thing about screenwriting it took him 50 years to learn was to make sure your leading character is in a hurry. The characters of The Mountain Between Us represent this maxim taken to the maximum. Yet despite this, there’s surprisingly very little in the way of suspense or stake.
The pace is as glacial as the mountain itself. The perils are few and far in between and an encounter with a cougar is the only one that evokes genuine dread. The romance is of paramount importance rather than their survival and the chemistry between Elba and Winslet is affable enough for a credible companionship but doesn’t quite escalate to believable sexual tension. It leads to a sex scene that’s less cathartic and more puzzling.
Bland and predictable
I haven’t read Charles Martin’s best-seller that’s the basis of The Mountain Between Us but I’ve seen enough films with similar premises, like Six Days Seven Nights for example, to correctly predict how this plays out. Whilst it could have gone the Titanic route of suspensefully pitting the dangerous nature against their relationship, it plays more like Winslet’s own Labor Day where the whole affair is, well, laborious.
When Ramin Djawadi’s score (which I quite enjoyed) tries to make you sympathize with Ben and Alex during any life-threatening moment, you remember the poor life decisions that led them to this scenario and it becomes difficult to empathize with them, and maybe it’s easier to just spite them for their complicity in the poor dog being stuck on the mountain too. It’s unsurprising but nevertheless dispiriting when it all tops off with a schmaltzy conclusion.
The boredom of the audience and the characters is slightly assuaged by the beautiful sights of the colossal Utah wilderness. Cinematographer Mandy Walker slowly pans her cameras around for breath-taking vistas of the Uinta Mountains which look especially good in Abu-Assad’s long-favored 2:35:1 aspect ratio. If there’s one movie in his mostly good filmography that benefits the most in this widescreen format, it’s The Mountain Between Us. Maybe it’s the trademark that landed him in the director’s seat – it’s too bad that his knack for compelling human drama (Paradise Now, Omar) and crowd-pleasing entertainment (The Idol) looks to have been lost in the plane crash.
The Mountain Between Us: Conclusion
The line-up of Abu-Assad, Winslet and Elba spells sure-fire entertainment but the material they’re given only arouses the feeling of languor. The Mountain Between Us is too dramatically inert to be a worthwhile survival adventure, and too stilted in evolving the central relationship to be a memorable romance. All three have had better days and the coupling of Winslet and Elba, who clearly enjoy working together, has plenty of potential with a better screenplay.
Does The Mountain Between Us favorably compare to its source material? Let us know in the comments.
The Mountain Between Us is currently playing in cinemas in the UK and USA. To see the release date for other countries, click here.
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