Two British actors contend with a frozen North American hinterland in The Mountain Between Us, the first Hollywood effort by Palestinian-Dutch director Hany Abu-Assad.
Now dump all those geographic modifiers in the trash, because this movie takes place absolutely nowhere.
Derived from Charles Martin’s romance novel, the story pits middle-aged urban professionals against the primeval dangers of an unidentified mountain region. (In the book, it’s Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness.) Ben (Idris Elba) is a brusque British-expat surgeon whose skills will prove handy after he and two others survive a small plane’s belly-flop into a snowy peak. Alex (Kate Winslet) is an American crisis-zone photojournalist whose career, pluck, and name have been manned up from the novel (where she’s a writer named Ashley).
The third survivor? A golden retriever so agreeable he never asks to be fed during several weeks spent far from the nearest PetSmart.
Alex is the more impetuous of the human trekkers, and not just because she’s in a rush to get to New York for her wedding. But her leg was mangled in the crash, so she cedes control of the situation to the more cautious Ben, whose own wounds don’t seem to impair him. Eventually, Alex insists on getting off the mountain, and Ben has little choice but to follow her.
During their narratively unadventuresome adventure, Ben and Alex encounter perils as if checking them off a list. Large predator? Yup. Raging river? Got it. Frozen lake. But of course. Frostbite? That, too.
As if to emphasize the predictability of it all, the director punctuates the episodes with lots of doggie reaction shots Scooby-Doo couldn’t do better.
In the sticky tradition of The English Patient, grave injury and nursing, under drastic circumstances, lead to erotic swooning. Indeed, the only mountain that separates Ben and Alex seems to be their commitment to other people. Alex is engaged, of course, and Ben is married. Or maybe not. He’s the strong and silent type who just doesn’t want to talk about it.
The whole not-talking thing is frustrating and improbable, but essential to J. Mills Goodloe and Chris Weitz’s script, which dispenses backstory as if through an I.V. drip, designed to just barely sustain the audience’s interest. Most of the time, character development is buried under fresh powder.
Elba and Winslet are as convincing as the plot and their lines allow, which is not very. At least the bulk of the movie has scenery as a distraction. Things get worse whenever Ben and Alex find their way indoors, and go really wrong in an epilogue that peddles the hoariest of rom-com ready-mades.
As photographed by Mandy Walker in British Columbia, the movie’s alpine landscape appears untrammeled and majestic, if not all that threatening. It certainly doesn’t have the complex reality of Abu-Assad’s homeland as he depicted it in such alternately wry, humane, and devastating films as Ford Transit, Omar and the great Paradise Now.
Where The Grey and Wind River glorified exterminating wolves, The Mountain Between Us glibly dispatches a mountain lion. But don’t fret that Ben and Alex, even when crazed by hunger, might turn out to be natural born killers. They don’t eat the dog.