Neither as tacky as Martin Campbell’s Vertical Limit, nor as emotionally satisfying as Balthasar Kormàkur’s Everest, Hany Abu-Assad’s mountain-survival story, The Mountain Between Us, rests quite comfortably between the two in terms of quality and screenwriting logic.
Starring Idris Elba as a neurosurgeon, Ben Bass, and Kate Winslet as a Guardian journalist, Alex Martin, Abu-Assad’s film follows their desperate attempts to overcome the severe weather conditions and dangerous wildlife of the mountain tops they’ve found themselves stranded upon, as a result of their flight home taking a turn for the worse.
Now, this in itself is a silly premise: how could a neurosurgeon and a journalist have any clue on, or chance at surviving the harsh, overwhelming snow fields that face them? Is the all-but necessary suspension of disbelief a little too extreme?
Well, the thing with The Mountain Between Us is it isn’t really a survival story: sure, it’s the foundational narrative thrust, getting to the end of this perilous journey. But, if anything, The Mountain Between Us should have been billed as more of an unlikely love story between its two estranged characters.
It is with this facet of its somewhat confused personality that The Mountain Between Us shows most of its strengths. Writers Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe have imbued the film with some intriguing relationship politics, somewhat simplified by the marketing’s leading tagline: ‘What If Your Life Depended On A Stranger?’. The gradual release of tension, progressing towards a mutual affection between Ben and Alex, is prompted by their dire circumstances: despite their shared anonymity to one another, the natural need to rely upon each other to get through the arduous task ahead of them perpetuates their romance. But reality sets in, complicating matters: narrative threads reveal secrets that remind Ben and Alex that they are strangers, that the ardour arising between them could spell disaster for their lives back home.
It’s an interesting dynamic, perhaps not inclined to probe into the psychology of human relationships as much as one would like; and yet, an engaging chemistry is present nonetheless. The film is helped along in this regard by a pair of astute performances from its leads, who sell the action with zealous dedication to their craft. Elba is a hulking masculine mass with real heart, easing out the inner torment of his character to great effect. On the flip side, Winslet is forever fervent and fierce in a role that requires a sense of infallible determination in the face of unlikely odds: considering her previous work on Titanic, a film that also dealt extensively with an icy disaster, it’s a part that fits Winslet like a snow mitten.
Unfortunately, whenever Abu-Assad’s film flits back to its survivalist elements, the gaps in screenwriting logic begin to materialise. From the inexplicability of Ben Bass’ ability to scale treacherous mountain ravines without breaking a sweat, to the limited food supplies that somehow last the length of the journey as though this were a retelling of a biblical parable, The Mountain Between Us can sometimes dip too deeply into the deep end of daftness.
It’s a shame because Abu-Assad had the opportunity to explore the primal prioritisation of survival and how this plays into human relationships, linking both shades of its story into one cohesive experience. Instead, the romance is interrupted by inferior action interludes, based upon a basic set-piece that fails to add any investment into its characters or story. From a sudden plummet down a cliff face, to an ice lake collapsing beneath the feet of a weary Winslet, these moments should strengthen the appeal of the film, but feel at odds with the tone of the movie: rather than depicting intense psychological struggle as they should in this situation, these are action beats functioning under formula.
It is this clash of spontaneous and silly action within the cold landscape, against the heated and intriguing romance, that ultimately leaves one feeling a little lukewarm on the film overall. Elba and Winslet deliver great performances, elevating Weitz and Goodloe’s material. Additionally, Mandy Walker’s cinematography is impeccable, bringing out the authentic, angelic white tinge in its winter surroundings. It’s just a shame that Abu-Assad felt the need to rely on spectacle when the narrative is clearly more interested in its investigation of Ben and Alex’s unusual relationship. If it had interlinked its survival aspects, to enforce and augment this affair, then it could have ended up as an emotionally powerful piece, rather than an enjoyable diversion.
Dir: Hany Abu-Assad
Scr: Chris Weitz, J. Mills Goodloe
Prd: Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, David Ready, Jenno Topping
DOP: Mandy Walker
Music: Ramin Djawadi
Runtime: 112 minutes