Movie Film review: A Mountain Between Us

An over-baked ending topples an otherwise taught survival drama

A Mountain Between Us
Directed by Hany Abu-Assad
With Idris Elba, Kate Winslet, Dermot Mulroney, Beau Bridges

Survival against the elements almost always makes for a thrilling film, with tragedy and disaster lurking at the very turn as people try to make it to safety. Put two top actors into the mix, and it should be a classic. A Mountain Between Us, a romantic disaster survival melodrama, features Idris Elba and Kate Winslet on screen alone for the bulk of the running time. But a poor third act sabotages what had been a promising set up.

A photojournalist named Alex Martin (played by Kate Winslet) finds out her flight has been canceled due to a storm. She needs to get from Idaho, where she was taking photos, to New York so she can get married. She is not the kind of person who takes no for an answer. A doctor named Ben Bass (Idris Elba) needs to get to Baltimore to perform a life-saving surgery.

The setup happens very quickly, and shouldn't be a surprise given that this is a survival film, but possibly there's some spoilers ahead.

Alex hires a small plane and a pilot to fly around the storm. She convinces Ben, a total stranger, to come along and share the cost. They can reach Denver and each take connecting flights.

The plane turns out to be a rather ancient one piloted by the affable Walter (Beau Bridges) and his unnamed dog. In a bit of heavy-handed screenwriting, Walter states he hasn't filed a flight plan. Up in the air, he randomly points out they are in the middle of millions of acres of untouched wilderness with no people for as far as can be seen in any direction.

Disaster can't be far behind, and it isn't.

Alex, Ben and the dog wind up stranded and injured on the top of a snow-covered mountain, with almost no resources.

The middle part of the film is actually fairly decent. The two people manage to avoid freaking out into histrionic scenes as they recover. Instead, they behave like rational adults, which is refreshing for this sort of film. Usually, there is some screaming and face slapping. And Winslet thankfully gives us a strong and resourceful character, not a damsel in distress. Idris also defies the stereotypes and is not suddenly a macho man. He shows some real compassion and resolves, despite the dire situation.

The two actors have an incredible chemistry, fighting a bit over what to do but still knowing they need to rely on each other. Viewers can feel the bond growing between them as they try to get out of their situation.

The wilderness they are stuck in offers some beautiful vistas and also some deadly perils, and the film shifts tones quickly.

The various dangers are all well-staged and don't go too over the top. The film keeps the basic threats of cold, lack of food and dangerous terrain at a believable level. At any time one small mistake could kill them both.

But the melodrama eventually overtakes the survival plot, and that is where the film falters badly. The last half hour of the film is a bit of a long face-palm.

There are some minor points too that are annoying. Ben can't get a phone signal and is worried about his battery. Perhaps he should just turn the phone off until they get near a tower, rather than pointlessly wasting it all the time.

One rather annoying part is Alex's camera. It is an old-school film camera with a range viewfinder. But when she takes pictures with it, she looks at the back of the camera, as if it were digital and she could check the image right away.

The camera has a telephoto lens. She gives the camera to Ben and tells him to use the camera as a telescope to check the distance, but on this model camera, you can't look directly through the lens.

The film she has is black-and-white in 35 mm canisters, but when we see her negatives, they are large-format color squares. It is small point, but it ruins the credibility of her character.

The shame of it is that A Mountain Between Us has so many good things going for it — a cast that brings empathy to the material, competent direction by Hany Abu-Assad, convincing effects and solid cinematography.

The whole thing in the end just doesn't come together like it should, and much of that is due to the rather botched ending.

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