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 were 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 she 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 snowcapped 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 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.