City of Tiny Lights ***/*****
Directed by: Pete Travis
Written by: Patrick Neate based on ho novel.
Starring: Riz Ahmed (Tommy Akhtar), Billie Piper (Shelley), James Floyd (Lovely), Cush Jumbo (Melody), Roshan Seth (Farzad Akhtar), Hannah Rae (Emma).
I’m a sucker for a good film noir – a genre we don’t see nearly enough of anymore. Pete Travis’ City of Tiny Lights will due until a better noir comes along – it has all the hallmarks of the genre, with a few modern twists thrown in. The twists and turns the story takes may be somewhat predictable, but it’s anchored by a strong central performance by Riz Ahmed, and an interesting visual look. I’d like the film even more if it didn’t have the sappy, happy ending it does – which films tacked on, and isn’t the least bit noir. It may not be a great film, but it will scratch that noir itch lovers of the genre have.
The film stars Ahmed as Tommy Akhtar – a P.I. working the rainy streets of London (which I don’t think have ever been rainier in a film – and that’s saying something). He narrates the film in the kind of hard boiled voice over made famous by Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum – Tommy is a man of regrets and guilt, and it doesn’t take a detective to see that those will eventually get resolved in the film. The case he is investigating at first seems like an ordinary missing person – Melody (Cush Jumbo), a prostitute comes into his office to hire him to find her roommate – a Russian prostitute named Natasha. Tommy’s investigation doesn’t immediately find the woman – but does find a dead body with a connection to someone out of Tommy’s past. At the same time, Tommy runs into Shelley (Billie Piper) – a girl he knew in high school, and hasn’t seen since – their interactions is loaded with sexual tension, and regret – as they meet at the grave of her former boyfriend, who was one of Tommy’s best friend – with Shelley’s teenage daughter in tow. Since we’re in noir territory, all of these things will eventually come together.
Directed by Pete Travis, City of Tiny Lights is dripping with style – but only occasionally does Travis overdo that style. Mainly, it’s in the moments between scenes, where Travis wants to set up the ambience, and he overdoes shots of Tommy walking in slow motion through the rainy streets of London, cigarette dangling from his lips, the lights of the city reflecting in all the water on the streets. Mostly though, Travis uses those rain slicked streets effectively – and immediately establishes atmosphere (and brings to mind the line spoken by William H. Macy in the comic noir A Slight Case of Murder, who as a film professor asks his class two questions about noir 1. What do these people do during the day and 2. Why is it always raining?).
The film twists and turns, and flashes back in time to when Tommy, Shelley and others in the film were teenagers – and the tragic events that have kept them apart all these years. Everything is perhaps a little pat and predictable – and the screenplay seems to want to ensure that none of the characters we like have ever done anything that bad so that we will continue to like them. The movie becomes a little bit of a mess by the end – with a shootout we see coming from the beginning of the film (you don’t mention a character has a gun in a noir, unless that character is going to use said gun) and then a phony Christmas scene that it nearly straight out of it’s a Wonderful Life. Luckily, even when the film seems to be taking the path of least resistance, it still has the great Ahmed performance to anchor the film. Noir, like most film genres, has largely been the playground for white actors – City of Tiny Lights is a multicultural noir, with characters from different backgrounds interacting much like they do in life. Yes, there are Middle Eastern characters, and terrorism comes up – but it’s hardly the major concern for the movie – it’s much more concerned with old noir standards like greed and jealously.
Note: I saw City of Tiny Lights at TIFF 2016 - and just noticed it was on Netflix Canada - I assume it's the same version I saw.