I’m not going to lie, my first thought when Alex and Ben survived the plane crash high up in the wintry mountains, with only a nameless dog and a dead pilot called Walter for company, was who’ll be eaten first: Walter or the labrador.
My second thought was, how on earth are they going to have sex with so many clothes on?
Alex (Kate Winslet) is an American photojournalist, heading to her own wedding and so much of a free spirit that when she finds out her flight is cancelled she’s happy to get changed into her wedding dress in the cab once she arrives. Ben (Idris Elba) is a brain surgeon, smart in his expensive tailored wool coat, scheduled to perform surgery on a young boy the next morning.
It’s Alex who suggests chartering a small plane, flown by Walter (Beau Bridges) and his dog, to get them to Denver, the first stop on their journeys.
The tiny plane looks terrifying even before they get in, and I think I’d miss my wedding if it meant arriving the next day in comfort on a 737. (The only time I’ve been in a small plane was 20 years ago flying from Boston airport to Martha’s Vineyard. They weighed us to balance each side of the plane, and rather sweetly all the American women looked at my weigh-in and said “you really don’t look that heavy!”)
Alex and Ben are less wimpish, but there’s a storm coming and as if that wasn’t bad enough, as they head over the snowy mountain ranges Walter has a stroke. The crash takes a long time as bits break off and the cabin careers downwards, changing direction as it hits rocks until finally coming to rest.
If you are going to crash, make sure the least injured survivor is a doctor. Alex is unconscious for 36 hours, and has damaged her leg, which Ben is able to strap up. And once she’s awake, after helping her pee he looks at what she’s produced in the pot and says “that looks pretty healthy!”.
Foodwise they’ve only got a few candy bars and nuts. Walter hasn’t filed a flight plan (“no need, it’s still light out!”), and they don’t know where their beacon is. The sheer scale of where they are, and the likelihood that they will die out there, is horrifying especially when the camera pans back to show Ben tiny on the unbroken snow, ridges and escarpments all around.
In some ways the film isn’t remotely realistic, but in other ways it is too much so. Ben has the longest iPhone battery known to man, for all the good it does them in the signal-less wilderness, and he only starts at 64%. And when they have sex I could only think “Alex you haven’t washed your hair in days!” as he nuzzles her tresses.
But they do spend a lot of time waiting in the plane cabin. And then they trudge through lots and lots of snow, hoping they are getting nearer to rescue, bickering slightly less and supporting each other slightly more as their relationship gradually warms up.
Part of me would have actually enjoyed a straight-up romance where no one needs to pee, and they somehow manage to have loads of sex without freezing their bits off. Or a solid survival tale where they don’t even bother trying to get out of all those layers for a quickie. Mixing the two doesn’t quite work. The last section does drag, and even before that there were times, as they, yes, trudged on through the snow, when my only thought was “just die already”.
But Elba and Winslet are such accomplished performers that they carry this film, when with lesser leads the survival tale would have had to be considerably more exciting as they’re basically walking downhill for several days.
Their relationship has genuine nuance: it’s not a movie where two people who hate each other are thrown together, or where one person is trapped with a psychopath. They are simply two different personalities, who don’t really get each other’s jokes, and have no initial spark, put in a one-off situation where survival doesn’t simply mean walking to safety but also coping with the indignities that injury and living in close proximity presents. If they’d met in other circumstances they’d have made tortuous small talk then never seen each other again.
The other lead is The Dog With No Name (as well as not filing a flight plan, Walter never told them what the dog was called), who adds warmth and companionship and does get them out of the odd tight spot. I didn’t see it being fed once, yet it remained adorably bouncy throughout.
Some aspects of the story are trite: he’s a neurosurgeon, she’s a photographer; he favours brain and logic, she is instinctive and from the heart (he even says “the heart is nothing but a muscle”); he likes to wait, she wants to do something, even if it’s the wrong thing.
And it’s frustrating that so much information isn’t shared, for so long. It’s obvious what happened to Ben’s wife, though Alex gets the wrong end of the stick and he doesn’t put her right for ages. If it had been me on that mountainside, within 10 minutes Ben would’ve known my children’s shoe sizes and the Fireman Sam theme tune, and I realise that after that he’d probably not have looked for me if I wandered off like Alex does. But they are meant to be finding common ground, sharing stories, to bind them closer together as they face physical and mental obstacles. This is where I should probably say “there is indeed a mountain between them!” and I know that’s the point of the film but they are their own worst enemies at times.
They are also quite dense on occasion – when they spot a manmade construction it doesn’t seem to occur to them that they must be near a road as how else could the raw materials have been brought up?
But the scenery is really stunning. Not just the scarily lonely white peaks, but also the slopes down to the valleys, dotted with green trees that may be weighted with icicles but at least show that there is life nearby.
It’s easy to focus only on their survival and relationship, so it’s welcome when Ben stops and, despite their perilous situation, points out the beauty of where they are, even if there’s a good chance it’ll be their final resting place.
Watch the trailer for The Mountain Between Us: