There’s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned love story, and the top of an ice-capped mountain is not a bad place for one. But The Mountain Between Us is a wasted opportunity, both for its hollow romantic aspirations and its lazy storytelling.
Director Hany Abu-Assad wastes no time getting us into the action. Before we’ve even had a chance to open our popcorn, he crash lands strangers Alex (Kate Winslet) and Ben (Idris Elba) and their private charter plane into the snow. Within five minutes, the pilot is dead, Ben has a few broken ribs, and Alex’s leg injury is compounded by the fact that she’s about to miss her own wedding. Perhaps Abu-Assad deserves some credit for his efficiency in getting us straight to the plot, but his lack of instinct when it comes to pacing turns out to be an enduring issue.
In a film not short of weaknesses, the progression of time is perhaps its most glaring problem. The vastness of the landscape, the hopelessness of its two prisoners, and their torment of playing the waiting game are all conducive to wide shots, slow pans and long takes, yet none of these editing techniques are used. Rather, cinematographer Mandy Walker zooms in on Alex and Ben’s shiny made-up faces while Abu-Assad cuts between each scene in a slipshod fashion. What we’re left with is a highlights reel of the seemingly incompatible duo’s journey down the mountain, one that strips the tension from what should be an arduous and mentally agonising survival mission. Every now and then, the pair’s dialogue gives us a marker by revealing how long they’ve been lost. Each time this happens, the amount of the time that has supposedly elapsed comes as a surprise.
As the narrative progresses, we realise that the film is actually less about Alex and Ben’s survival and more about their relationship with one another. Some might find it sweet, but one can’t help but detect a case of Stockholm syndrome, in which Alex’s infatuation for Ben is primarily a by-product of her dependence on him to survive. Rather than challenge Ben’s male dominance – as most contemporary films in touch with the zeitgeist might choose to do – Alex and Abu-Assad respectively reinforce it by finding excuses for Ben’s stubborn and controlling behaviour.
This decision to exploit Winslet and Elba’s beautiful faces for this tacky purpose demonstrates a lack of respect for the audience, who at the very least deserve chemistry from their romantic leads. Yes, Elba has the body of a Herculean god and Winslet is a likeable lead, but the two share little more than eye contact and insults for most of the film’s first two acts. Indeed, their moments of supposed chemistry are so few and far between that Abu-Assad is forced to splice together a montage of all the times they smiled at each other, just to make us feel even dumber.
Had Abu-Assad and writer J. Mills Goodloe resisted the urge for romance and decided instead to focus on the film’s tenser moments and capitalise on its spectacular setting, they might have ended up with a more thrilling film. Instead, the end product is as uncomfortable and gruelling as the conditions in which Alex and Ben are subject to.
The Mountain Between Us is in cinemas from 12th October through 20th Century Fox.