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The Mountain Between Us is a Lesson in Bad Casting

The plane crash survival film could have been a new achievement for the genre, if it wasn't for its one abysmal lead.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

The best moment in the new survival drama The Mountain Between Us is when a cellphone rings. Ben (Idris Elba) and Alex (Kate Winslet) are stranded up a mountain after a plane crash, her phone smashed and his without signal. As the signature iPhone ringtone warbled around the movie theater, the audience drew in their breath: They’re saved! But no. It was just an elderly attendee who picked up his phone to stage-whisper, “I’m in a movie.”

Ben and Alex are strangers who banded together to charter a tiny plane to take them to Denver. Alex is getting married shortly, while Ben is due to perform emergency surgery (the different stakes of these appointments foreshadows a lot). Their pilot is a bit old (stroke-prone) and a storm is on the way. They crash. In the broad strokes of its plot, The Mountain Between Us fits well within the boundaries of the plane crash survival movie genre.

The most famous plane crash survival movies all take place, oddly enough, on snowy mountaintops. Alive (1993) told the story of a Uruguayan rugby team stranded in the Andes, forced to eat their dead and battling the endless white around them (key line: “If you eat me, do you promise to clean your plates?”). Likewise 2011’s The Grey saw Liam Neeson adrift in the Alaskan Wilderness after his little plane crashed. In that movie, the snow is coupled with another threat: wolves. There are many more: The Snow Walker (2003) depics plane crash survivors in the Arctic. The Edge (1997) is exactly the same thing, but with Alec Baldwin. In pleasant contrast, Castaway (2000) gave the genre an island holiday.

There are things to admire about The Mountain Between Us, but not many. The dead pilot’s golden retriever costars, providing much-needed companionship for a viewer embarking on this frozen journey. A marauding wild cougar also deserves praise for trying to eat Kate Winslet early on. These two are just about outshone, however, by an enormously romantic performance from Idris Elba as a heartbroken neurosurgeon who tends to Alex’s wounds, pulls her trousers down when she has to pee, and generally hauls her dead weight down a mountain.

The theme of Alex and Ben’s relationship—they fall in love on their long march to rescue, of course—is of the heart versus the brain. This is spelled out very clearly. He is a neurosurgeon who says “the heart is just a muscle.” She is a photojournalist who values the heart over the head. The conceit is that she provides the heart and courage for them to keep going and take risks. He has the medical knowledge, physical strength, and resourcefulness that keeps her alive. It’s a bit of an imbalance of talents really, one that reflects an imbalance in magnetism between these two actors.

Idris Elba is a very, very watchable man. A role as a leading romantic hero in an expensive movie is long overdue to him, and he rises to the occasion. Elba hasn’t been cast well in Hollywood. It was a shame to see how badly The Dark Tower (2017) turned out. His best movies may well still be 28 Weeks Later (2007) and Prometheus (2012). It’s really good to see him act with his normal voice—the one fans know and love from Luther—and using normal British phrases like, “We’ve got to get on with it!”

Ben falls for Alex first, and we know because of his eyes. She’s irritating but funny: “Want coffee?” she quips as she heads out of an icy cave, grinning as if it’s their own picket-fenced house. We see by the movements of his body and the melting sternness on his face that he is changing. The character of Ben combines macho capability with caretaking in a fatally charming concoction.

But surrounding Idris Elba’s warm performance is a metallic and cold movie, and an air of falseness that comes down, in the end, to simple lack of chemistry between the costars. Kate Winslet is a good actress, but she doesn’t work in this scenario in part because her character has no real emotional vulnerability. It’s painful to compare this performance to the rawness of her characters in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Sense and Sensibility (1995), Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996), or even the medical horror Contagion (2011). In each of these great Winslet turns, she had the opportunity to get hysterical. She’s so very good when she’s allowed to turn it up to 11, and so very unconvincing as a cheerful American photojournalist here. Elba and Winslet’s careers teach different but equally telling lessons about the dangers of miscasting.

There are some interesting structural features to The Mountain Between Us, which was directed by Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now, Omar). There’s a strong motif of mediation and transparency. When the pair first show up to the hangar where the little charter plan sits, they eye each other from either side of the plane’s cockpit, through the glass. As the emotional distance between them melts, the iciness of that glass barrier transforms into a water theme. Alex plummets through some ice into a lake. Ben bathes her wounds with water. Later in the movie we see him walking in the rain; her in a swimming pool.

Alex and Ben are brought together in the end by photography. Her camera survived the crash. As rescue starts to look more and more unlikely, Ben says to her, “I want you to take a picture of me.” There are many parallels to Titanic in The Mountain Between Us, but this callback to Winslet’s “Draw me like one of your French girls” line was the only one that made me laugh at loud. Anyway, Alex refuses, only acquiescing to photograph him later, once hope has returned.

The interplay between the photography theme and the melting barrier theme is a rewarding one. Before their ordeal, Ben and Alex see neither themselves nor one another clearly. On their journey down the mountain, toward rescue and also toward love, they come to a point of recognition. This point is marked by Alex’s loving portrait of Ben asleep, a photograph that pays tribute to all the pain and beauty of his being.

The mountains are pretty too. The dog, hopping along amicably beside them, is unfailingly adorable. The whole thing is perfectly shot. It feels important to emphasize Abu-Assad’s achievements in putting this movie together because, I’m sad to say, The Mountain Between Us fails almost exclusively because of Kate Winslet. It’s a case of good actress in the wrong film, playing across a good leading man who just doesn’t resonate on her frequency. There’s some warmth in this movie—canine though it may mostly be—but the dynamic between Winslet and Elba is disappointingly cold.