There’s a great deal of talent undertaking a lengthy, chilly slog in “The Mountain Between Us.” The estimable stars, Kate Winslet and Idris Elba, dominate every moment of screen time, with the gifted, twice Oscar-nominated director Hany Abu-Assad presenting the story with gripping realism and emotional power.
The film’s great shortcoming comes in its framework, putting the actors into the most precarious “meet cute” since Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio sunk the Titanic, and its structure, creating a third-act U-turn that may please devotees of romance but will disappoint admirers of credible surprises.
Winslet plays Alex Martin, a photojournalist on assignment in Idaho and eagerly trying to return to New York for her imminent wedding. She’s stranded when an approaching blizzard freezes all commercial flights out of the airport, and she’s nearly as frustrated as London-based surgeon Dr. Ben Bass (Elba), who is needed straightaway in a Manhattan operating theater to save a 10-year-old boy.
The strangers are mismatched personalities, she bravely impulsive, he carefully prudent, but they unite to charter a small private plane to fly them home.
Before you can say “inevitable,” pilot Beau Bridges is removed from the story, his tiny plane crashes, and his passengers, along with his faithful golden retriever, are marooned on a snowy peak in Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness.
Ben is badly battered, Alex has a broken leg, but they are alive.
A standard tale of survival follows, with Elba climbing treacherous heights and Winslet fending off an attacking cougar in capably exciting sequences. The scenery is heart-poundingly dangerous, yet beautiful beyond compare, helping the film develop its subtext. As the pair slowly work their way down the mountain in search of civilization, the opposites begin to quietly and tentatively attract.
Because they are played by two of the planet’s most beautiful actors, no one should be much surprised, except the characters they play. According to Ben, “the heart is nothing more than a muscle,” but given the right sort of exercise, it grows at a rapid rate.
They trudge through snow-covered terrain side by side, growing ever more intimate while still keeping secrets from each other. They cuddle to avoid hypothermia. They share joint custody of that wonderful dog. Despite some genuinely worrisome perils (stay away from bear traps and walking across thinly frozen lakes), it’s an unstated certainty that each feels oddly blessed to have the other as a companion along what might be a final trip.
The biggest challenge is the late arriving question of how Alex and Ben can re-enter their earlier lives after this ordeal.
Elba and Winslet are magnetic screen presences, irresistible to watch individually and even better together. Watching them here, I found myself pulling for their endurance. If he can survive “The Dark Tower” and she can survive “Collateral Beauty,” they can make it through a movie like this.