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The jaded voiceover reflections of a small-time gumshoe operating in what seems a world of almost continuous night give City of Tiny Lights a traditional noir vernacular. But the setting in a multicultural London prey to the relentless forces of gentrification and the threat of fanatical terrorism makes this very much a contemporary crime thriller. Adapted by Patrick Neate from his 2005 novel, Pete Travis’ brooding film is more absorbing than genuinely suspenseful, though the rising-star profile and quiet charisma of Riz Ahmed (from HBO’s The Night Of, and the upcoming Star Wars spinoff, Rogue One) should benefit its exposure.
Ahmed plays Tommy Akhtar, a solitary private eye who has recently moved back in with his cricket-loving Pakistani immigrant father Farzad (Roshan Seth), following the old man’s diagnosis of prostate cancer. That central character — a South Asian Brit drawn into a case that brings him into contact with religious fanaticism as well as with his own unreconciled past — gives the movie a distinctive edge in the neo-noir landscape.
Lingering economic woes plague Tommy’s West London neighborhood, shutting down small businesses as drugs and crime continue to spread. He also carries the personal burden of his role in a tragedy that occurred back in 1997, when he and his friends were just 17 and Britain was floating on a cloud of New Labour promises. Stirred by the return after a long absence of the girl he loved, Shelley (Billie Piper), and the involvement in a case he’s investigating of his one-time best friend Haafiz, known as “Lovely” (James Floyd), Tommy relives that painful episode, its details revealed in flashback fragments throughout the film.
“I deal in secrets,” says Tommy. “I dig them up or I bury them.” The case begins when high-class hooker Melody (Cush Jumbo) hires him to look into the disappearance of her Russian flatmate. He traces the missing woman to a Mayfair hotel room where her client, a Pakistani businessman, is found dead. Tommy uncovers a link between the dead man and Lovely, now a slick entrepreneur backing a luxury apartment development. But the attention of counter-terrorism forces to the case makes it clear that more complex elements are in play.
As Tommy digs into the victim’s ties to an Islamic youth group, he ruffles the composure of the local mullah (Alexander Siddig, in a single terrific scene). Increasingly hostile warnings to stay out of it fail to persuade Tommy, and as the complicated truth emerges, his life — as well as that of Melody and even his father — comes under threat.
Travis and cinematographer Felix Weidemann give the film a sleek look and a flavorful texture, with lots of shimmering lens flare piercing the shadowy nighttime settings. The stylishness extends also to the atmospheric use of a melancholy score by Ruth Barrett. But as more details become clear, so does the film’s eventual outcome, making the reveal of the key villain anticlimactic. Other elements, too, are telegraphed, such as the unhappy fate of a neighborhood kid recruited by Tommy to infiltrate the Islamic group.
Still, City of Tiny Lights exerts tension throughout and remains intriguing in its use of terrorism anxiety and anti-Muslim prejudice as fodder for hasty conclusions. While Neate’s reliance on voiceover as a linking device shows the property’s literary roots, the film maintains interest as a multiethnic, 21st-century take on a private-eye tale cut from the classic mold. That’s thanks also to solid performances, notably from Jumbo (The Good Wife); the always-welcome Seth, with his mischievous charm and musical delivery; and Ahmed, who brings sorrowful nuances to the role while spending much of the movie nursing a glass of Wild Turkey in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Cush Jumbo, James Floyd, Billie Piper, Roshan Seth, Reiss Kershi-Hussain, Hannah Rae, Antonio Aakeel, George Sargeant, Mohammad Ali Amiri, Alexander Siddig, Vincent Regan, Barry Aird
Production companies: NDF International, Sixteen Films
Director: Pete Travis
Screenwriter: Patrick Neate, based on his novel
Producers: Ado Yoshizaki Cassuto, Rebecca O’Brien
Executive producers: Michiyo Yoshizaki, Marc Samuelson, Charles Auty, Peter Hampden, Norman Merry, Fumio Nagase, Christine Langan, Joe Oppenheimer, Natascha Wharton
Director of photography: Felix Wiedemann
Production designer: Victor Molero
Costume designer: Claire Anderson
Music: Ruth Barrett
Editor: David Charap
Casting: Celestia Fox
Sales: Protagonist Pictures
No rating, 109 minutes.
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