Gumshoes, mysterious women and broken hearts are the stuff of classic film noir. In City of Tiny Lights, a novel written and adapted for the screen by Patrick Neate, we get this with a modern and diverse twist.
Tommy Akhtar (Riz Ahmed) is a private detective. He looks after his feisty but ailing father Farzah (Roshan Seth) while he skulks around his seedy London neighbourhood looking for his next case. It comes to him when a high-priced “femme fatale” call girl Melody (Cush Jumbo) asks him to find her missing roommate and fellow working girl Natasha. As he digs deeper into his case, Natasha’s disappearance is tied to a prominent Muslim business man’s death. He must connect the dots while teenage friends, lovers and memories resurface, making his life more confusing and dangerous.
Director Pete Travis covers a lot of material in City of Tiny Lights. There’s Tommy’s formative years that holds some clues for the present brought to us in flashbacks; his affair with Shelley played by Billie Piper; his investigative work with the case of a missing call girl; and the murder that hovers over all the action. As a result of the many story arcs, this almost 2-hour film felt longer. The radicalized Muslim activity in the murder plot also put an overused stereotype into play. While it was a gentler view of devout Muslims trying to clean up their neighbourhood, it was also a cliché that overshadowed a fresh approach to film noir.
The female characters also needed a bit of work. While the call-girl characters were either the Black or Russian, a typical and tiresome choice, Jumbo created intrigue and personality from Melody’s underrated part, and Piper was underused as Tommy’s love interest. What saves the film is the beautiful and moody homage to film noir shot by cinematographer Felix Weidemann with lots of rain, neon lights and colours cutting through the dark sets, and Ahmed’s performance.
I first saw Ahmed in the 2010 dark comedy Four Lions, where he played a radicalized would-be suicide bomber. It was a risky role, satirizing a growing concern in the 21st century that would become the go-to for Muslim stereotypes, and one he nailed. Since then, he steadily impresses and commits to each role he takes on. Here, he looks the part of a distant but caring private eye, bringing a modern edge to the film noir trope. Although his Wild Turkey swilling became slightly repetitive (and would make most pause and wonder how he kept his wits about him with all that booze), his big expressive eyes and slump-shouldered mannerisms kept the interest going as the plot meandered its way to the big reveal.
City of Tiny Lights does however redeem itself by doing several things right. Despite the fact that the writer and director are white, the lead actor is of Pakistani descent who plays a character that is typically assigned to a white male actor. Ahmed exhibits a gritty by sympathetic, lone wolf appeal. It also shows the real London; one of many cultures living side-by-side. Tommy’s father is South Asian, and his best friend is of Caribbean descent. Tommy’s crew when he was a teen was also racially diverse, showing the reality of the world around us: complex, diverse communities needing proper representation.
See City of Tiny Lights for what it does right: updating a classic film style with a person of colour as the lead in a racially diverse setting.