What Remains on BBC1: Not so much a whodunnit as a why-oh-whydunnit

The BBC's new and much-trailed series about a workaholic detective who just can't let go strains credulity, despite its worthy-enough intentions.

Like a vole or a shrew, David Threlfall is all nose and eyes. It’s through their twitching and blinking that his furry – sorry, I mean actorly – wit is most often conveyed. In the new and much-trailed BBC series What Remains (Sundays, 9pm), in which he plays an almost-retired and then newly retired London copper, he snuffles his way around even the most clichéd of lines, wilfully oblivious of this being one show for which he will almost certainly not be awarded a Bafta (an ageing, workaholic detective who just can’t let go? Give me a break!).
 
I don’t know if it troubled Threlfall that his character, Len Harper, allows a young woman to stroll blithely on to a possible crime scene, mop and bucket in hand; or that his door-to-door inquiries involve nothing more than wedging his card inside people’s locks for them to find when they get home. But in the end, his conviction – the snuffling and the truffling, the scratching and quivering – somehow carries the day. Awarding these procedural sillinesses a free pass, you settle in and give yourself up to the drama.
 
At the heart of What Remains is a big Victorian house. Once it must have been grand but now it’s shabby and faded. Inside are five flats – and if you’ve ever lived in such a place, you will know the scene: noise that carries intrusively, neighbours who can hardly bear to look one another in the eye, hallways piled with kebab-shop flyers.
 
When it comes to metropolitan isolation, however, this building’s residents put the rest of us in the shade. For the purposes of narrative tension, they do know each other’s names; it turns out that a new arrival, Michael (Russell Tovey), was even taught by Mr Sellers (David Bamber), the mean old schoolteacher who lives in the basement. But one of the residents, Melissa, who lived in the top-floor flat, has also been lying dead in the attic for at least two years, her body stinking and mummified, and yet none of them noticed.
 
Crikey. I know people are busy and introverted and unkeen on fuss, especially the kind of fuss that might have house prices plummeting. But really. You’d have thought someone would have picked up something. I didn’t buy the line by the crime scene officer about how the loft space was cold and airy enough for there not to have been much of a smell. Where I live, it’s whiffy round the bins even in mid-December – and we’re talking (I hope) two-day-old chicken biryanis, not rotting corpses.
 
Did Melissa have an accident or was she murdered? This is what DI Harper intends to discover. So far, though, his investigations are proving tricky. The autopsy has told him next to nothing, and Melissa seems to have had no computer, mobile phone or close relatives. (Yeah, I know.) Mr Sellers disliked her but not half so much as he loathes the lesbian couple who live on the first floor – and they’re still very much alive. None of the other residents has anything at all to say about her, good or bad. It’s all a bit of a puzzle.
 
What Remains is clearly intended to be not so much a whodunnit as a why-oh-whydunnit; its writer, Tony Basgallop (Hotel Babylon, Inside Men), seems to be more interested in the way we live now than in weapons and motives. You will have gathered that I think his script strains credulity and that he’s very lucky indeed his cast includes the likes of Threlfall and Bamber.
 
All the same, he’s on to something. Modern life is increasingly lonely, and I would like to see more television that explores this. I no longer – thank God – live in a flat where I am able to hear the man above me peeing hotly at 3am but I’m as aware as I ever was of the painful, uneasy disjunction between our physical proximity and our emotional distance from one another.
 
For more on this, I recommend Carol Morley’s plangent, upsetting 2011 film, Dreams of a Life, which pieces together the story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a 38-year-old woman who lay dead in her flat in Wood Green, north London, for almost three years. When her body finally was discovered, the TV was still on – and it is this detail, more than any other, that speaks to the age. The flickering of a screen, be it television or computer: this is what counts as company in the 21st century, in life and even in death. 
Home visit: David Threlfall as DI Len Harper. Photgraph: BBC.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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A guide to the top ten London Film Festival screenings you should go and see

Some of the most-celebrated films on at the 60th year of the BFI London Film Festival are sold out. Here are the ones that are still available – and worth seeing.

Feeling panicked because you haven’t booked any tickets yet for the 60th BFI London Film Festival, which is now less than two weeks away? Confused because you don’t know your Chi-Raq from your Paterson? Fed up that the movies you have heard good things about (La La Land, Toni Erdmann) are all sold out? Sick to the back teeth of being asked rhetorical questions which presume to know your state of mind?

Fear not. Below is a handy, whistle-stop guide to ten promising festival screenings for which, at the time of writing, there are still plentiful tickets to be had.

Being 17

Veteran director André Téchiné delivers what is rumoured to be one of his best films: a tantalising and exuberant tale of two teenage boys engaged in a mysterious mutual antagonism.

Elle

All hail the return of master provocateur Paul Verhoeven with this highly-regarded psychological thriller starring Isabelle Huppert as a woman whose response to being attacked is unorthodox and full-blooded.

Frantz

The mischievous writer-director Francois Ozon is always a good bet. I’ve heard two things from friends and colleagues about his new film, a wartime drama. First, that it’s brilliant. And second, that it is best watched without knowing anything about it beforehand—not even the name of the play on which it is loosely based. So I’m passing on those tidbits to you.

Heal the Living

Love Like Poison was a subtle and deeply affecting coming-of-age story set in rural France. Now that film’s director, Katell Quillévéré, returns with a drama about the emotional complications arising from organ donation.

King Cobra

A real-life murder case was the inspiration for this seamy but sensitive journey into the world of gay porn, in which a deadly tug-of-war ensues over a hot new teenage star. The cast includes James Franco, Christian Slater and Alicia Silverstone.

Mindhorn

Anyone who saw Mighty Boosh star Julian Barratt in Will Sharpe’s brilliant Channel 4 show Flowers earlier this year will know that he has developed new muscles as an actor. That bodes well for this comedy, which he also co-wrote, and in which he plays a washed-up actor recreating his best role – a detective with a robotic eye.

Moonlight

The acclaim from the Toronto Film Festival for this story of an African-American boy growing up gay in 1980s Miami has been deafening.

Personal Shopper

Kristen Stewart gave a revelatory performance as personal assistant to a lofty actor (Juliette Binoche) in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria. Now she’s sticking with Assayas and keeping it personal by playing a shopper to the stars, with a supernatural element thrown in – she’s a medium hoping to make contact with her dead twin brother.

Raw

Universal Pictures has snapped up this bizarre-sounding French-Belgian drama about a teenage veterinary student turned cannibal.

The Reunion

I’ve heard only good things about this tender love story set in Madrid, with one colleague even describing it as a Spanish Before Sunrise. Praise doesn’t come much higher.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 5-16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.