Head versus Heart in The Mountain Between Us
Director: Hany Abu-Assad Starring: Kate Winslet, Idris Elba, Austin the Dog, Raleigh the Dog Running time: 103 mins
The Mountain Between Us opens on Alex Martin (Kate Winslet) with a skilled American accent and an arsenal of questions, a complete contrast to Ben’s (Idris Elba) British stoic suave. They are total strangers, thrown together by bad weather and circumstance. They arrive at the airport to find out all flights to Denver are cancelled, but with Ben flying out to perform a surgery and Alex trying to make it to her wedding, they can’t wait until the next morning. Alex charters a plane, piloted by a sweet old man and his faithful dog, and having overheard his troubles, she invites Ben to tag along. Disaster ensues.
The costume department did an excellent job of expressing the good doctor’s uptight, controlling nature through his carefully selected, colour coordinated shirt-and-jumper combos, even through layers upon layers on the mountainside. Alex’ wardrobe lies just on the right side of rough and ready, enough to be believable as a conflict-zone photographer but not so much that it looks deliberately styled. Wardrobe coordinator Renee Ehrlich Kalfus deserves props (pun unintentional!)
Costumes and characters aside, The Mountain Between Us is overwhelmed by the snow peaked landscape in most frames. But by cycling between expansive panoramas and the tight, claustrophobic shots inside the plane wreck, the film avoids visual stagnation. One scene in particular sticks in the minds’ eye; our three not-so-happy campers are sitting around a flickering fire on the mountain after walking until they drop, and the camera slowly pans back and back until they and their fire are teeny specks against a sublime backdrop. It’s beautiful and haunting, like a Rembrandt painting, and it powerfully conveys their distance from safety and the known.
It could be because The Mountain Between Us was originally a book, but each line of dialogue is integral in teaching us who these characters are. From the first words Alex and Ben speak to each other, the differences between them are stark. Winslet puts out a hand and announces “I’m Alex Martin”, but Elba quietly takes her hand and replies “I’m Ben”, giving only his first name and avoiding further conversation.
After the crash, a conversation about what Ben does for a living shows us these characters different outlooks on life. It is only after some time together that Alex finds out exactly what kind of doctor Ben is, and she is completely unsurprised when she finds out he’s a brain surgeon. He waxs poetic about brain surgery, how your memories and perceptions all live in the brain. She says “Why not the heart?” and his dismissive response is that the heart is just a muscle. This conversation echoes throughout the film in their arguments on survival; Ben wants to stay put, surviving on individual almonds and waiting for rescue, Alex wants to keep moving forward in the hopes they will find help. When Ben eventually comes round to Alex’ gut-feeling brand of decision-making, the film frames it as an awakening. This is a subtle but important critique of the cage masculinity can impose when left unexamined.
Humour is the through-thread that keeps The Mountain Between Us from becoming ‘too’ sentimental. The film holds with Alex’ direct, grounded version of empathy and emotion, so naturally most of the humour comes directly from her. From quipping to the dog as they go off alone “He was gonna eat you anyway” to asking “I’m going to have a look around, you want coffee?”, Winslet as an American is organically witty. The film keeps us onboard by showing us a slow rapport build between these two; we can understand exactly how and why they form a connection, beyond being stuck with each other.
Fair warning for a spoiler, but I want to assure you that the dog gets a happy ending – but never a name!
(3.5 / 5) While The Mountain Between Us is a life-affirming film with a genuinely touching romance, it does suffer from a long second-act which tends to repeats itself.