As snowflakes go, few are more special than the ones that alight with pristine delicacy on Idris Elba’s eyebrows in “The Mountain Between Us.” Those preternaturally attractive snowflakes know what’s up in a movie that starts out as a grueling man-against-nature survival tale and winds up evoking all the ersatz hardship of an L.L. Bean catalogue.
Once the penny drops – once all the convenient obstacles and equally timely windfalls start popping up with the reassuring regularity of a metronome – viewers can settle in for what “The Mountain Between Us” is really about, which is the delicious, slow-burn attraction between two of the most beautiful and charismatic stars on the planet.
That would be Elba, of course, and Kate Winslet, here playing travelers trying to get to Denver from Boise in time to beat an oncoming snowstorm. Ben (Elba), a handsome doctor, needs to get to Baltimore in time to perform a lifesaving operation. Alex (Winslet), a freewheeling photojournalist, simply must get to her own wedding. When commercial flights are canceled, the two strangers book a private plane, piloted by an avuncular veteran with a penchant for gallows humor. “As long as nobody’s shootin’ at me, I’ll get you there,” he says jovially.
Ha ha. It spoils nothing to say that “The Mountain Between Us” doesn’t involve a short hop to the Mile-High City. It does involve one of the most viscerally upsetting filmed plane crashes in recent memory, given added terror by the fact that the pilot has brought along his stouthearted yellow Lab. Just in case the survival of Elba in chunky knitwear doesn’t create enough buy-in, the filmmakers helpfully throw in an adorable dog for, you know, stakes.
At times, “The Mountain Between Us” recalls such arduous wilderness adventures as “Into the Wild,” “The Grey” and “The Revenant.” But, in this adaptation of Charles Martin’s novel, the sobering physical peril of two lonely people stranded on a snowy mountain peak gradually gives way to the sheer tantalizing potential of two lonely people stranded on a snowy mountain peak, with Elba and Winslet smoothly calibrating their performances to suit both narratives as they morph from one to another.
Helped by director Hany Abu-Assad and spectacular cinematography by Mandy Walker, who makes the most of the film’s British Columbia locations, Elba and Winslet generate chemistry that is convincing in direct proportion to the story’s outlandishness. Paradoxically, amid the endless coincidences and contrivances, these accomplished actors never lead the audience to doubt that their characters are for real, whether they’re arguing about tactics or creating sparks in other ways.
There are moments in ‘The Mountain Between Us” when inveterate fans of “Titanic” might feel compelled to remind Dr. Ben of what happened the last time Winslet starred in a tale of sexual passion and survival. The good news is the setting and scope of this story are expansive enough for not just one but two people to be carried to their romantic destiny. Who knows – there might even be room for a dog.