The private investigator spiel of City of Tiny Lights is well-trodden ground. It’s refreshing, though, to see it set in the dirtier, dicier suburbs of West London, bringing realism to the piece as well as an interesting clash with its stylistic ‘hard boiled’ tendencies.
Director Travis, however, is seduced by hackneyed trademarks of the genre – there’s a cringey, ill-advised voice over from lead Ahmed, including during a clanger of a last scene that comes across like a festive DFS advert – whilst the camera work veers from inspiring towards cliché. The film’s story line is engaging enough, although you can comfortably solve bits of the film’s case before its end.
Luckily, Riz Ahmed is riveting as P.I. Tommy Akhtar, elevating the film with his eminent watchability: his leading roles are long overdue. Billie Piper is lovely as ever – if a little wasted – in the ‘moll’ role: you can understand Tommy’s attraction to Shelley’s charming fragility, but her actual character is rather flimsy, giving Piper little to work with.
Cush Jumbo is a welcome addition as salt-of-the-earth prostitute Melody, and, in a story that flits between the present and its characters’ misspent youths, the young cast are vital. Reiss Kershi is utterly convincing as the softer, more obviously vulnerable young Tommy, sharing that same magnetic essence with Ahmed. Other junior actors offer more window work than nuance in their performances, but another standout is the wannabe streetwise Avid (Mohammad Amiri), always up for assisting Tommy.
City of Tiny Lights is an uneven but wholehearted effort to honour both contemporary London and film noir. A great ensemble makes light work of the staid script – but it’s the impeccable Ahmed carrying the film, and ably demonstrating that British cinema must learn to diversify for its own benefit.
CAST: Riz Ahmed, Billie Piper, Cush Jumbo, Roshan Seth, James Floyd, Vincent Regan
DIRECTOR: Pete Travis
WRITER: Patrick Neate (adapted from his novel)
SYNOPSIS: When a prostitute comes to his office looking for her missing flat mate, Private Investigator Tommy Akhtar (Ahmed) is plunged deep into London’s underworld of drugs, crime and radicalisation. Meanwhile, a re-appearance from his youth forces Tommy to address his long-suppressed feelings towards both her and the troubled consequences of one evening in the past.