Film noir was a direct response to the genre that had defined the era that came before it. While Westerns were tales of courage that perpetrated the American dream centering on wholesome figures of bravery, film noir was disillusioned, pessimistic and isolated, telling the story of whiskey soaked, bleak individuals. Which is perhaps why it’s a genre that seamlessly fits with modern Britain. A fatalistically fractured society that shares more in common with Philip Marlowe than Ethan Edwards.
In perfect Marlowe style, we first meet Tommy Akatar (Riz Ahmed) with cigarette in hand, face half lit by a neon sign. Coupled with his voiceover narration, it’s an exquisitely noirish introduction to the private investigator and the rain-soaked streets of London, which makes for an impressive substitute to New York or LA with its endless seedy locations. One night, young prostitute Melody (Cush Jumbo) walks through the door of Tommy’s office asking him to find her friend, Natasha. After finding a well known business man dead in a Holiday Inn, Tommy soon finds himself embroiled in shady property deals and the Islamic Youth, while behind forced to relive his painful past.
Ahmed, an actor who has shown glimpses of brilliance, gets a chance to shine here with a muscular, steely performance that commands the screen every time he is present; perfectly constructing a noir anti-hero with abrasive wit and charming humour that fits into the world of straight whiskey and cigarette smoke. One of the film’s more touching elements is the affectionate relationship shared between Tommy and his cancer suffering, cricket obsessed father (Roshan Seth), which is lovingly permeated with a sense of tenderness. Sadly, the same can’t be said for Billie Piper’s Shelly, Tommy’s old flame, who struggles to make much impact on the film’s narrative, left lingering on the fringes. Riz Shebani puts in a terrific performance as the young Osman, who perfectly encapsulates the struggles with identity many minorities are facing in modern Britain while also managing to nab the film’s funniest lines.Director Peter Travis displays his acute eye by beautifully documenting the nocturnal life of the sprawling city, visually capturing the capital’s spectacle, while thematically examining its sordid underbelly. Alex Garland may have been the creative mind behind Dredd, but here Travis proves all the stunning visuals were his own, one lift sequence is especially brilliant. The director manages to capture London in an impressive air of realism that abides to the genre’s visual traits while doing something with its contemporary setting. Yet, the use of shaky, blurry cam is an unwelcome addition that feels unnecessary every time the queasy visuals appear on screen. It’s Travis’s faultless ability to balance noir tropes and modern Britain’s issues and fears with multiculturalism, as well as an examination of the capital’s gentrification, that proves to be the film’s biggest achievement. This blend gives City of Tiny Lights a refreshingly nuanced feeling, evoking Chinatown and The Maltese Falcon while simultaneously reminding you of the best episodes of Luther.
Screenwriter Patrick Neate adapts from his own novel burning some unneeded fat off the narrative but despite this it may have proved more effective for Travis, if he had been more ruthless in the cutting room as some scenes feel unneeded while some awkwardly repeat themselves. The neo-noir narrative is interjected with flashbacks to Tommy’s past, which while adding much needed emotional depth to the character, are let down by the young actors’ struggling performances. It does very little to affect the final film but it proves to be the film’s weakest link.
City of Tiny Lights is a film that affectionately adheres to the traditional tropes of film noir, with Tommy’s bookending, jaded voiceover encapsulating the genre’s literary source while confident enough to update the subject matter to have contemporary relevance, resulting in a near masterpiece, a shining example of what British independent cinema can be.
City of Tiny Lights is receiving a UK release in 2017 through Icon Film Distribution.