The romantic drama “The Mountain Between Us” shows what great talent can do to so-so material, as two powerful actors and a thoughtful director give weight to the sort of overwrought melodrama that otherwise would have landed on cable TV.
The set-up is laughable, but quick. In an airport in Idaho, a neurosurgeon, Ben Bass (Idris Elba), is desperate to get a flight to Baltimore, where a little boy needs surgery. At the same airport, journalist Alex Martin (Kate Winslet) is trying to book a flight to New York, where she’s set to get married the next day. But all the flights are booked, and an impending storm may snow them in, anyway.
Alex overhears Ben at the ticket counter and offers a solution. She’s found a small-craft pilot, Walter (Beau Bridges), who’s happy to outrun the storm to hop them over the High Uintas to Denver, where they can catch flights east. Ben agrees, and off they go.
It turns out to be a short flight, as the storm moves fast and Walter has a stroke in the cockpit. Within minutes, all of it shown in one seamless and harrowing shot, the plane crashes in the snowy Uintas (though the movie was actually filmed in Canada). Ben wakes up first, splints the comatose Alex’s broken ankle, buries Walter and assesses their limited resources.
When Alex comes to, she and Ben, accompanied by Walter’s dog, must make a life-or-death choice: Stay with the wreckage and hope someone will find them or start hiking through the frozen wilderness to find civilization. The two bicker about it — with Alex telling Ben he’s too cautious, and Ben telling Alex she’s reckless — in ways that telegraph to the viewer how they’ll end up together at some point.
The script — adapted from Charles Martin’s novel by J. Mills Goodloe (“Everything, Everything”) and Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”) — runs Alex and Ben through travails both natural and interpersonal and is as interested in the psychological toll of survival as the physical. Director Hany Abu-Assad, a Palestinian filmmaker who made the Oscar-nominated “Paradise Now” and “Omar,” makes a solid English-language debut, smartly keeping the focus tight on his stars.
It’s those stars who raise “The Mountains Between Us” above its material. Winslet brings a world-weary gravity to the flighty journalist stereotype, while Elba smolders as the grief-stricken doctor with a tragic past. Together, they bring enough heat to melt the Uinta snows and make the story’s more ridiculous leaps more palatable.
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The Mountain Between Us
Kate Winslet and Idris Elba elevate a garden-variety romantic drama about survival after a plane crash.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Oct. 6.
Rating • PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, peril, injury images, and brief strong language.
Running time • 103 minutes.