This romantic drama is most compelling as a mild story of survival adventure. Contemporary romances often stumble over the first hurdle: Their dramatic obstacle. In this age of global communications and (presumed) enlightenment, what is there to keep true lovers apart? As the title implies, The Mountain Between Us comes with a fair-sized obstacle built in: The titular mountain, in winter, as the protagonists survive a plane crash atop it and struggle to descend it to civilization. So in this case, the apparent obstacle is actually what brings them together, sort of like Titanic, which also starred Winslet. Here, she plays plucky photojournalist Alex, opposite Elba as ingenious but calm neurosurgeon Ben. Alex's active nature is the catalyst to keep things moving, which is something, because otherwise the movie plays like Ben saving them, over and over.
Alex and Ben's struggle is interesting because survival stories are, by nature, interesting and because Winslet and Elba are excellent actors. They absolutely carry the movie, keeping the stakes high and the dangers real, even when the filmmaking tends toward the unfortunately sanitized. This isn't a gritty or harrowing experience à la Alive or The Grey. Physical and emotional realities are brushed aside in favor of a budding romance. Why, for instance, do we not see the effects of wind, snow, sun exposure, and starvation on Alex and Ben's faces and bodies as their ordeal stretches over a month? His ribs are broken, but he does a heck of a lot of stuff that would be difficult for a perfectly healthy, well-nourished person. And as even-keeled as they may be, Alex and Ben's language seems downright polite for folks facing what they think is certain death. Director Hany Abu-Assad (two-time Oscar nominee for Paradise Now and Omar) does bravura work in the plane crash scene, which is presented as one continuous take. But when the characters aren't in danger of dying, their story tends toward schmaltz. Without an actual mountain between them (and survival), the obstacles keeping them apart lose their potency – and so does the film.