Romance on ice in “The Mountain Between Us”

Kate Winslet and Idris Elba in a scene from “The Mountain Between Us”

“The Mountain Between Us” is a film that ends up just where you expect it to. If you have seen the poster with the heads of Idris Elba and Kate Winslet placed in proximity. If you have seen the trailer. If you have just read the logline—this movie leads up to just where you think it would. So, I feel only slight misgivings at beginning this essay with a quasi-spoiler.

Alex, a photo-journalist for a British paper and Ben, a neurosurgeon, are stranded in Boise, Idaho and both need to get to Baltimore urgently. Alex, ever ready for chaos, charters a plane and politely invites Ben to join in but tragedy strikes when the pilot has a stroke mid-flight, and they become stranded on a mountain. There is a scene later in the film that has stuck with me for some days. In that scene, the two find temporary shelter in a cabin and as they sit on a couch in the background of the scene is a huge American flag, gently nudging the audience, suggesting its importance. Surely, this flag, which takes up as much as a third of the frame in some shots bears some significance? Except, it does not. It fades from the main idea of the story. It’s a purely incidental moment, in a film of incidental moments. A moment odder because neither the main stars (both British) or the director (Dutch Israeli), is the American. The moment, rife for some jingoistic expression, has no value. This submission, of a careless visual cue in “The Mountain Between Us” is not meant to emphasise its poorness in relation to other films. It is hardly the first movie this year, or even this month, that has missed the connotative meanings of symbols in the background or foreground. What it does emphasise, though, is the unusual visual laziness of this romance and of the penchant for visual laziness as an essential part of this genre. Romantic films have a bad reputation. Much of this stems from the gendered way that film criticism emerges and the intrinsically visual nature of the medium. It is difficult to find an immediately visual language to represent a slow and reluctant move towards love, whereas in a fair to middling action film, terrible as it might be, you are prone to find some good effects or striking images as action, by its nature, demands the visual.

This is why acting and story tend to be what buttresses most romances. But “The Mountain Between Us” does not even have a particularly effective story at its centre. It has an undeveloped one. There are ideas there. Like the tagline which asks, “What if your life depended on a stranger?” It’s a taut question that anyone will be familiar with, taken to heightened urgency. Or later in the film there is a brief hint of a PTSD drama, where our two survivalists, after weeks of rough terrain, struggle to acclimate to life after an event like this. Was the bond forged built on solid mountain or just frozen water? Neither idea really goes on anywhere. I am always loathe to criticise a film for what it doesn’t do, instead of critiquing what is actually presented but it becomes difficult to consider how “The Mountain Between Us” falls in the romance parameters.

The romance genre depends on the convention that someone must be dealing with romantic love in some form.  There is the romantic comedy which revels in the absurdity of love, and the romantic drama which examines the serious nature of love. The romantic drama is usually rife for criticism. It is sentimental, mawkish. Romance as comedy tends to be more successful because of the levity. Romance as drama tends to depend on a hook to make it salvageable. Sometimes it’s war, like “Gone with the Wind” or “The English Patient” or a great crisis like illness in “Love Story” or a tragedy about to unfold like “Titanic.” “Titanic” is a key one. It is another Kate Winslet film which often gets criticism for its poor screenplay. And, yet, its straightforward idea of a burgeoning romance amidst natural disaster is harder than it seems. This is the sort of familiar paradigm “The Mountain Between Us” wants to get – a romance via disaster. But “Mountain” has a commitment problem. It’s too concerned about ethics to immediately confront the obvious attraction the two lead characters have for each other, and the disaster bit of the plot is not compelling enough to occupy us for the first half of the film. By the time they do make good on the romance possibilities, the film gets so uncertain, that it feels the need to show us flashbacks of their earlier moments as if to remind us – “Hey, these two folks have chemistry.”

It all reiterates the strangeness of the film. For example, even with a plain story and serviceable visuals, this movie could be saved. Kate Winslet and Idris Elba exude charm in their general rounds on talk shows. The director, Hany Abu-Assad directed the visually unique “Paradise Now” and “Omar” but seems out of place in English here  (like he also did with the “action” film “The Courier,” which is not very great). Sometimes when I come out of a movie, I feel inclined to poll the audience members. What made you decide to come see this film? What kept you in your seats? What are your thoughts now that it’s all finished? After seeing “The Mountain Between Us,” I wanted to poll the creators. What was the impetus? Why this film? Why this film told in this way? With these visuals? With that ending? The film is inoffensive at best, and at worst. And, sadly, a representative of too many romance dramas recently. Cold and reserved. No passion.

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