It sounds fraught with potential pitfalls, a survival tale in which a man and a woman slowly develop feelings for one another as their prospects for living more than a few more days dwindle.
And yet with very fine performances from Kate Winslet and Idris Elba and admirable direction from Hany Abu-Assad, “The Mountain Between Us” is a rewarding viewing experience. Oh, it makes a minor stumble here and their — its final, crucial scene is awkwardly shot by Abu-Assad, for example — and it comes close to overstaying its welcome, but it ultimately will have you invested in and rooting for these two people.
Winslet portrays Alex Martin, a talented photojournalist who, thanks to the threat of a potentially violent storm, is stuck in Idaho the night before she is to be wed in New York. At the airport, Alex overhears a phone call being had by Ben Bass (Elba), a surgeon desperate to get to Baltimore for an operation on a child in the morning. After finishing a call to her fiance — “I’ll be there, OK? Hey — I’ll be there,” she tells him — she introduces herself to Ben and suggests the pair try to charter a flight to Denver, where they could then go their separate ways.
They find a pilot (Beau Bridges) who is so unconcerned by the storm he doesn’t even register the flight. In the air with Alex, Ben and his dog, the pilot realizes the storm has moved into their path. Possibly due the stress, the pilot — who sounded weak minutes earlier, however — suffers a stroke, and there is little Ben can do for him. The aircraft then crashes in the heavy snows of the Uinta Mountains in northeastern Utah, and the movie frame goes dark.
Ben wakes first, to discover he has cracked ribs and the unconscious Alex has a nasty leg injury, which he treats. (And, fortunately, the unnamed pooch is fine.) When she finally wakes, she initially is confused but soon comes to understand the situation.
“The pilot?” she asks.
“I buried him yesterday,” Ben responds.
The situation is dire. While they have rations for a few days, no one would be looking for them in that region. Neither Alex nor Ben told anyone of how they planned to make it home, and, remember, the pilot filed no flight plan. Still, Ben believes their best hope is to stay put and hope to be rescued, an idea that befuddles Alex, despite the fact she cannot even relieve herself without Ben’s help.
“It looks pretty healthy,” Ben says, peering into the pan into which she has just urinated.
“Cool,” she says, obviously and understandably uncomfortable with the whole situation.
Because it is so hard for Alex to move, she says Ben should leave her to try to find help.
“I can’t go,” Ben says. “You won’t make it alone.”
“And I’m still telling you to go,” says Alex, who feels guilty for roping Ben into her plan to try to get home.
“Alex, if I wanted to leave, I would have left three days ago.”
They will move on from the crash site, of course, dog along for the trek, and grow increasingly comfortable with each other. And they will depend on each other — she more than him physically due to her leg, but each of them for companionship and strength throughout this ordeal.
“The Mountain Between Us,” based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Charles Martin, is nicely constructed by Abu-Assad (“Omar,” “Paradise Now”) and screenwriters Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”) and J. Mills Goodloe (“The Age of Adaline”). Alex and Ben encounter enough challenges and are stuck in places long enough for the stakes to feel life-threatening, but that time is never so long that the viewer should become frustrated.
Plus, the dynamic between Ben and Alex is consistently interesting. She grows increasingly impressed by this capable doctor with a British accent, but she wonders why, despite wearing a wedding ring, he does not speak of his wife. And Ben clearly is developing feelings for Alex, who seems to be very much in love with the man waiting for her in New York.
While Abu-Assad establishes just the right tone for this potentially romantic situation — except for his unnecessary and distracting use of flashbacks during a crucial scene deeper into the film — he is aided by his excellent actors.
As Alex, Winslet (“Steve Jobs,” “Collateral Beauty”) is strong, determined and vulnerable at the same time. She is also imperfect in a relatable way, her curiosity causing her to violate Ben’s privacy at one point. It’s very fine work from the “Titanic” star.
And Elba (“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” “Beasts of No Nation”) adds another wonderful performance to his already long list. “The Wire” alum infuses Ben with some of the same admirable qualities as Alex, even while ensuring his character counterbalances Winslet’s. At various times, he really makes you feel Ben’s frustration, his fear, his desire.
“The Mountain Between Us” won’t be to all tastes. While not boring, it also is not action-packed. Nonetheless, it offers much, last but not least gorgeous mountain scenery captured by cinematographer Mandy Walker (“Australia”).
“The Mountain Between Us” may not quite be a towering achievement, but it does stand tall.
‘The Mountain Between Us’
In theaters: Oct. 6.
Rated: PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, peril, injury images, and brief strong language.
Runtime: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
Stars (of four): 3.