Multicultural London gets film noir treatment from director Pete Travis in Patrick Neate’s City of Tiny Lights.
London Callingby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
London has never looked so moody or so beautiful as in Felix Weidermann’s almost abstract cinematography for Pete Travis’s City of Tiny Lights. In what seems like a perpetual dark night of the soul, multicoloured neon flares over the screen, car headlights make winding track lines across flyovers and North Kensington’s iconic Trellick Tower stands out as a distant silhouette against the fading sunset of the London skyline.
Walking these West London mean streets is small-time private eye Tommy Aktar (Riz Ahmed), a British Asian with a taste for Wild Turkey bourbon and a shabby one-person office above a minicab company. When high-class escort Melody (Cush Jumbo) asks him to find her missing Russian flatmate and fellow prostitute Natasha, who hasn’t come home after meeting a new client, he suddenly finds himself in the middle of some major crimes, out of his depth and needing all his street smarts to survive.
Patrick Neate has adapted the screenplay from his own novel of the same name and though it’s a tense thriller, it also has some satisfyingly laugh-out-loud one-liners. Tommy Aktar is a Sam Spade for our times, and Neate has given him an ironic Chandler-esqe voiceover that comes and goes at times in the film, wryly commenting on his life and the lies he sees around him. His dogged investigations into the murder he stumbles on lead him into a tangled web of corrupt property developers, radical Islamic groups and drug dealing, and unexpectedly to the notice of some mysterious security services. They also get him back into contact with two of his old school friends from the class of 1997 – Haafiz ‘Lovely’ Ansari (James Floyd), now a wealthy businessman, and Shelley (Billie Piper), Tommy’s long-lost love, now a single-parent hostess in an upmarket restaurant. These two stories are interrelated in the film through smoothly executed flashbacks. As Tommy delves further into the corrupt underbelly beneath the surface of multicultural London, the tragic secret in the group of friends’ past is slowly revealed at the same time.
To circumvent the stern local mullah (an implacable Alexander Siddig) who won’t cooperate with his enquiries, Tommy recruits his eager young neighbour Avid (Mohammad Ali Amiri) to infiltrate the mosque for him. And as things develop, Roshan Seth as Tommy’s charming cricket-loving Pakistani father, whom he lives with, plays a scene-stealing part.
Riz Ahmed plays the hardboiled film noir gumshoe with great style. He’s sympathetic, vulnerable, smarter than he at first appears but unluckily prone to being regularly beaten up when his investigation presses the wrong buttons. From Four Lions to Nightcrawler, to City of Tiny Lights, he’s become a leading actor who can carry a film. TV and stage star Billie Piper’s part in the movie seems slightly underwritten and not quite enough to justify the intensity of the relationship between her and Tommy, even though she’s a magnetic actor.
City of Tiny Lights is so firmly rooted in its environment that you can’t imagine it being set anywhere else. Though the identity of the villain at the heart of the mystery is perhaps too easily telegraphed, the contemporary London twist gives the genre a shot of adrenaline and a watchable character in Tommy who would merit being seen in more adventures.
City of Tiny Lights premiered at the 60th BFI London Film Festival and is released on 7 April 2017 in the UK.