City of Tiny Lights Review
While there have been variations on the film noir over the years, we still tend to think of them as American set thrillers, mystery at their centres and a narrative following a hardboiled detective on some sort of case. Switch that usual scenario to somewhere like modern-day London though and we get a whole new interesting viewpoint on this well-known genre.
City Of Tiny Lights (2016) is just that – a contemporary noir in which director Pete Travis transports all the usual tropes of the genre to the suitably dark and neon-streaked streets of London. Travis uses this setting to slowly build up the atmosphere, letting us soak it all up as writer Patrick Neate (adapting his own novel of the same name) gradually unfolds an intriguing story about a missing girl and Tommy Akhtar (Riz Ahmed), the investigator trying to find her.
Although emphasis is very much on this being a noir with a difference, Travis and Neate still hit all the tropes to keep the spirit of the genre very much alive within it. From the femme fatale, to the young sidekick, to the past which is forever coming back to haunt our hero: it’s all there. While this does make proceedings somewhat predictable, Neate ensures he keeps our interest by throwing us a few curveballs along the way in terms of the plot and the themes he explores, particularly religious extremism and the power (and greed) that can come with wealth.
The only moment in which the noir element doesn’t work in this modern setting is in the use of heavy-handed narration, a method that Travis relies on too much and which feels more like parody than homage. However it helps that he has such a strong, interesting lead in Riz Ahmed to get us through these less convincing moments, Ahmed giving the role an unexpected gravitas that makes the overall film all the more compelling, were it could have been in danger of becoming just another film sending up a well-known genre.
Neate also keeps us on our toes by weaving another tale of mystery alongside the main plot, exploring an incident in Tommy’s past that he begins to revisit when an old friend comes to town (Shelley, played by the ever brilliant Billie Piper). Travis seamlessly mixes the past and present through his direction, sometimes literally tying the two timelines together in almost dreamlike moments, Tommy turning around to suddenly find his past right there in the room with him. As impressive as these touches are though, Travis and Neate do have a tendency to hammer home the point about the ‘detective with a past’ a little too hard, especially when the audience have already worked out the answer as to why he is so haunted. Subtlety would have certainly helped in these instances, and possibly made City of Tiny Lights more of a perfect film.
Entertaining enough to watch, City of Tiny Lights unfortunately lacks something to make it truly special. Still, the beautiful visuals that the London backdrop provides, as well as the excellent central performance from Riz Ahmed and the clever message about Islamophobia and obsession with capitalism, all make this a film worth checking out.