We are a nation of dog lovers. America houses 78 million canines, almost half of all households have a dog. As the companion of an insanely energetic, loving Vizsla named Charlie I’m partial to them, so to me this love of dogs confirms we inhabit the greatest country on the planet.
The new survival drama/outdoor romance called The Mountain Between Us essentially affirms my thesis. Kate Winslet and Idris Elba are talented actors, playing protagonists Alex and Ben. But most of all they are lucky to be stranded on a mountain top in sub-zero temperatures with a Golden Retriever they name, simply and appropriately, Dog. (For the record, he is played by two fearless canine actors called Raleigh and Austin.)
The story is both straightforward and ingenious. Two stranded strangers meet at an airport. Alex, an American photographer, and Ben, a British surgeon, end up sharing a small single-engine plane to reach their destination. They chat briefly and uncomfortably during the bumpy ride. Then they crash, high in the snowy mountains.
When they wake up the pilot is dead. His dog survives. Alex is badly hurt, Ben is mildly hurt and very angry. A way out seems unlikely: it’s -30 degrees and getting colder. They have little food or gear. There is no map or cell phone service. Neither has any experience with the extreme outdoors or wild animals. And they have a sweet, clingy dog to consider.
The Mountain Between Us is too good to give anything away, so the plot description will end here. I will say the film bends and crosses genres, making it a lovely date movie as well as a hair-raising action flick. In short, director Hany Abu-Assad has made a compelling, intelligent feel-good movie to be shared by everyone.
When I met the director in Toronto he told me that was his intention. Times are tough and tense in the Middle East, North Korea, the United States and Europe, he said. “This for me is the time to make a ‘normal’ movie for a big audience. Everyone seems be making films about anger and violence. My goal was clear: make a movie filled with hope.”
As a Dutch-Palestinian film maker who spent much of his life in the Netherlands, Los Angeles, and now his native Nazareth again, he is known for activist films such as Omar and Paradise Now, both Oscar nominees. The big-budget Hollywood production with big names is new for him, but clearly it suits Abu-Assad. “A love story set in nature is rare,” he said. “It makes the story pure — there is nothing or no one to pollute whatever happens between them.” Indeed, the crisp white-and-blue world in which humans and dog are trapped isolates them so completely that even the surly Ben has no choice but to connect to Kate and Dog.
The acting is strong, as could be expected from these two. Winslet is simply one of the best in the business. Her character floats between fear and insight, between painful hopelessness and a craving for intimacy. While battling the cold as the film was shot in the mountains of Western Canada she clearly brought out the best in Elba. Grumbling and mumbling he tries to come out of his shell as they seek a way off the deadly mountain in the — perfect — title.
Together they are as compelling as any odd couple recently found on screen. The direction by Abu-Assad and gorgeous cinematography by Mandy Walker (she also filmed Hidden Figures) are finely attuned. The one gap in the story is how the dog survives. We never see him eat or drink. Another uneasy question in this land of dog lowers is: do they consider eating Dog? Thankfully the answer never comes, and anyone with a furry friend knows why. “Love is the key to survival,” reads a tag line in the advertisements for the movie. True enough, but make it “Love and a Dog.”
The Mountain Between Us, starring Kate Winslet and Idris Elba, is rated PG-13. It opens nationwide Friday.
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