Stylishly shot and in parts wickedly funny, City of Tiny Lights depicts the London of born and bred Londoners, and the city’s second generation immigrants. Roshan Seth and Riz Ahmed are captivating as father and son in this multi-layered film noir that hits several socio-political themes with realism.
With a trendy, diverse and talented cast like Riz Ahmed, Billie Piper and Roshan Seth you could argue City of Tiny Lights is half way to success. But it’s the stylistic shots of a darker, shadier London, the nostalgic scenes of 90s high-school angst and antics, the wit and the contemporary themes the film hits that ultimately make City of Tiny Lights a compelling watch.
The plot sees West London based private detective Tommy Akhtar (Ahmed) investigate the disappearance of a Russian sex worker, at the request of her flatmate Melody (Cush Jumbo). The investigation takes a turn when Akhtar discovers a dead body that links to his school mate, Haafiz ‘Lovely’ Ansari (James Floyd) who’s now a hot-shot real estate investor complete with designer suit, beautiful wife, and detached house with garden and water feature. Miles away from the life Tommy lives.
In the middle of all this Tommy runs into his lost love Shelley (Billie Piper). It’s through the interactions between Tommy, Shelley and Lovely that we’re taken back to scenes of the three as teenagers in multicultural London, the intricacies of their relationships, and why Tommy, hardened on the streets of a grey and unforgiving London, can’t see what’s in front of him.
Keeping up with the turns in the narrative is trying at points, especially when it’s fairly obvious who’s guilty. I thought the film was going south when a radical Islam angle complete with local mosque, cryptic Mullah, and cheesy American CIA agent was introduced. But if a film stars the politically aware Riz Ahmed, we should expect some degree of nuance and stereotype-busting in the script, and thankfully there’s plenty.
In City of Tiny Lights, all is not what it seems, the good guys aren’t so good and the bad guys aren’t so bad, relationships are complex, and age, ethnicity, gender, degree of faith, profession, wealth, and socio-economic status are proven pigeonholes only fools would judge others by, especially in a city as complex and diverse as London. These are important narratives in today’s times.
Ardent fans of the film noir genre might argue that City of Tiny Lights is naïve and too unoffending. Still the film scores points on the authenticity of its characters. Veteran actor Roshan Seth is charming as Tommy’s ailing, widower father Farzad Akhtar, who turns to the game of cricket to explain all of life’s problems. That theory transpires to have more substance than his drunken chatter would imply! Tommy’s bright and eager apprentice, Osman played by Rizwan Shebani, provides hilarious irony through his swagger and street talk. As for the protagonist, though the character of Tommy Akhtar is perhaps not as intricate as Riz Ahmed’s Rick in Nightcrawler or Naz in The Night Of, it is persuasive and well played, demonstrating Ahmed’s range and command as an actor.
The film ends with a quintessentially British Christmas Lunch scene; chaotic, with rather sad looking trimmings and strains of the Queen’s Christmas speech in the background. British East African, Caribbean and English folks, Christians and Muslims dig into turkey and wine together. Whether you interpret this as a forced allegory or just a salute to London’s diverse, working-class neighbourhoods, it’s a fitting end to author Patrick Neate’s story on which the film is based.
All in all, if you’re disillusioned by the London of flat whites, acai bowls, yoga pants, selfies and hipsters, you’ll find the film gratifying. And if you’re not, watch it to see London through your most underused filter.
City of Tiny Lights releases nationwide on Friday 7th April.
By Sona Hathi.
Posted on 5 April 2017. The posted was updated on 9 April 2017 when the word ‘review’ was added to the title.
Photos are publicity shots for the film.