Director Pete Travis (Dredd, Vantage Point) dashes us into the boiling pot of a violent London cityscape and turns up the gas, but City of Tiny Lights lacks the main ingredient of a great thriller.
Based on Patrick Neate’s 2005 novel of the same name, the film is centred on Riz Ahmed, who plays Tommy Akhtar, a private eye and re-imagining of the classic noir-detective. Tasked with finding a missing prostitute, he inevitably becomes entangled in a web of corruption in the seedy underworld of modern London.
The film’s initial use of voice-over immediately identifies this as film noir. It perfectly complements the tone and visuals conjured by Travis, from the lighting of cigarettes to the dimly lit confines of Akhtar’s office. Despite the promising introduction to an environment that, although highly stylised, still manages to remain some sense of familiarity, these atmospheric elements begin to fall apart. The voice-over becomes almost forgotten until much later, and you cannot help but question whether it was just an apathetic attempt to introduce the character without developing him through narrative progression. Quarrels aside, Akhtar’s character is immersive and compelling, and navigates us through a visually stimulating world of greed, crime and tiny lights.
The film’s narrative flickers between the past and present when old flame Shelley (Billie Piper) arrives unexpectedly into Akhtar’s life once again. Seamlessly blending flashbacks to create an intriguing sub-plot successfully favours insight into an understanding of their relationship, and the demons plaguing their collective conscience. Both are haunted and hurt, but a past tragedy is left buried until the film’s final act, which becomes understandable because it offers as the banal reveal that shoddily acts as the emotional spine of the entire piece. With a reveal so obvious, you don’t want to expect it.
Akhtar recruits his brother to work on the case, an annoying loudmouth with no redeemable qualities. His increasingly frequent presence and function within the framework of the plot begin to grate, and so does the presence of prostitute Melody (Cush Jumbo), whose quips act as a constant reminder that she is a woman of the sex trade, a walking plot device bestowed with too many lines.
The actual case that Akhtar is working on begins with promise, but gradually becomes an incomprehensible bore anchored only by the aura that Ahmed brings to his role, and ultimately fails to deliver an exciting climax that has come to be expected from the detective sub-genre.
City of Tiny Lights is competently handled and the style over substance approach originally appears a logical direction. The film fails in that it aims for greatness, and the direction eventually buckles and gives way to facilitate a story that is discernibly average. But, the two leads give it their all and save this from becoming yet another London crime movie left by the wayside. Akhtar’s father exists in a world in which he claims everything is comparable to the rules of cricket. If this is the case, you may wish to draw stumps early.