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In The Mountain Between Us, Kate Winslet and Idris Elba play characters who survive a plane crash in the Rockies.Kimberley French

Toward the end of the romance-action hybrid The Mountain Between Us, photojournalist Alex (Kate Winslet) tells surgeon Ben (Idris Elba) that she's conducted her research: She knows relationships that begin under intense circumstances rarely work out. In terms of this movie – the first English-language feature from the Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, whose Omar and Paradise Now both earned best foreign-language film Oscar nominations – her research is, unfortunately, correct. There's just too damn much mountain between them.

They meet in an Idaho airport, fellow strandees in a storm. They charter a small plane to Denver, piloted by Walter (Beau Bridges) and his intrepid dog. It crashes high in the Rockies (the dog survives). Alex is a risk-taker; she wants to try her luck on foot. Ben is cautious; he wants to be found. Screenwriters Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe, working from the novel by Charles Martin, keep the action moving, from mountain lion attack to near-fatal fall to plunging through ice, with snow heaps of hunger and hypothermia thrown in.

Cinematographer Mandy Walker and the mostly-Canadian crew worked wonders at 3,350 metres, in the Purcell range in British Columbia, creating verisimilitude with no CGI: They delivered a crane by helicopter, rigged dollies on snowboards, kept the cameras running 24 hours a day so they wouldn't freeze in the -38 C weather, wrapped their batteries in hot packs and stored them in coolers. But while they devotedly erased every snow print, they somehow overlooked the crisis in the other half of their film – the romance gets lost in the whiteout.

Alex and Ben are supposed to fall for one another despite their desperate straits, despite the odds, despite themselves. Their story is meant to be a slow build of opposites attracting – the chatty, inquisitive journalist and the taciturn healer hiding his own emotional wounds. First, they reluctantly admit that they need each other to survive. Gradually, they realize they need each other for a whole lot more.

It's a time-tested formula – Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen; Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas in Romancing the Stone; Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves in Speed – that we haven't seen in a while. Yet, like a full-service personal trainer, it asks all the right contemporary, self-actualizing questions, too: What is life, at its core, about? What are we waiting for? What is my mountain that is keeping me from attaining my heart's desire?

The problem is, Alex and Ben are so damn busy surviving (all that fighting off mountain lions and plummeting down cliffsides), they hardly have a moment to reveal their inner selves. They're also hamstrung by a script that delays Ben's big confession to the third act; this sacrifices our opportunity to savour the couple's growing emotional connection, in favour of a sudden, dramatic reveal. We want to be feasting on a four-course meal. Instead, we're parcelling out a meagre pack of almonds, like Alex and Ben after the crash.

It's possible that the filmmakers knew this might be an issue, but shrugged it off when Winslet and Elba were cast. She's naturally vivid and dynamic; he's physically imposing, with liquid eyes that go from fierce to vulnerable in an instant. They're an attractive pair, very fine actors and full-on adults telling an adult story. Surely their combined heat should melt away any quibbles.

But here's the contingency that no one prepared for: Winslet and Elba's chemistry is frostbitten. They just don't seem to like each other much. They look happier in their parkas than out of them. In a film where two leads are alone on screen for almost the full running time, that is the true catastrophe. When at last Alex and Ben lock eyes, we should not be looking around them to see what the dog is up to.

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