London’s flickering neon, streamlining car lights, and walls of glass reflected back from black oil puddles mesmerise and distort a contemporary tale of everyday murder, corruption and fundamentalism
A DICKENS OF A CAPITAL NEO-NOIR
STILL YOUTHFUL BUT weathered private investigator, Tommy Akhtar (movie-carrying class act Riz Ahmed) is reminiscing about the time he brought his West London schoolmate, Shelley home. And how his Ugandan Asian father (a scene-stealing Roshan Seth) was delighted to learn that she was studying ‘A Christmas Carol’: ‘I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.,’ he intones with huge pleasure. He might as well have been talking about his son’s future life. Tommy, back home with his sick Dad, seems both trapped by his teenage years and the then-tangled relationship between himself, Shelley and her boyfriend, Stuart – and now all but washed out by London’s teaming rain, strip lighting and his seemingly constant dependence on booze and fags.
When a call girl, Melody (Cush Jumbo) enters his pokey office (complete with bottle of whisky, and slatted blinds to peer between) to ask him to find her friend and colleague who has mysteriously vanished, he relishes the challenge. It’s not an apparently big endeavour but he regards himself as clever enough to find the missing person. Except that when a different body turns up in the hotel room where he was expecting to find the vanished girl, still alive, Tommy is drawn into a case mired in drug-dealing, corrupt developers, and young Islamist men overkeen to set the city to rights. Plus the reappearance of Shelley – now looking like Billie Piper – rattling the cage of Tommy’s heart.
Slick Dizzying Lightshow Captures London In Flux
Directed by Pete Travis, A City Of Tiny Lights is adapted by Patrick Neate from his 2005 crime thriller of the same name. Travis’ 2012 sci fi actioner, Dredd is set in Mega City One, ‘a vast, violent metropolis where felons rule the streets.’ So, not a million miles away from a 21st Century London where different factions vie for top-dollardom. It is into such a tangled labyrinth of corrupted interests that Tommy is dragged. Except that as a neo-noir thriller, Neate heavily underscores the influence of Phillip Marlowe. It doesn’t always come off, and indeed the cliches of seediness, sharp one-liners, and moral waywardness become wearisome. It is cinematographer Felix Wiedemann who brings a fluid lit zip to an often under-powered tale.
Given the theme of gentrification and urban development (Tommy’s teenage friend, Lovely – James Floyd – is now a property developer), one must credit the filmmakers with finding enough of the city that hadn’t been swallowed up by skyscrapers and ravenous cranes in which to set Tommy’s notably nocturnal life. But, ultimately, there is too much flashback and emphasis on Tommy’s youth, and the contemporary London tale becomes lost and confused, though not enough for viewers to mentally scream at Tommy to be very careful who he tells stuff to. Don’t they teach that in the first week of Private Investigator School?
Not Dark Enough For An Unhappy Ending
It is not that neo-noirs never tie things up with a happy ending but the monochrome needs to be expertly balanced. That mention of Dickens’ most famous novella at the start is unashamedly extended by the end. On the one hand, the 1843 London Christmas ghost story still has resonance today and is always ready for new adaptation. But the out-of-the-blue seasonal gathering of Tommy’s friends and family around the dinner table with his Santa-hatted father at its head feels too forced. (The Queen’s Speech on the telly with a woman clearly not Her Maj jolts.)
Yet it is made clear at this meal that while we all carry the ghosts of our past wrapped in the heavy cloaks of secrets and lies, those we love will help loosen and unshackle our chains. Even Melody turns up and reveals her real name is Laura. It might be Tommy’s business to uncover others’ true stories but the cost of not investigating his own over the years had cost him plenty. The ghosts of the past having now been set free, the future becomes an open book. And Tommy’s interrupted love story with the underused Piper’s Shelley is given the chance to continue when she belatedly appears at the front door to join them all too.
Styled as a supposed noir, City Of Tiny Lights turns out to be surprisingly and ultimately upbeat. As if screenwriter Neate has too much of a heart for the majority of his characters, and indeed the capital city itself. The shimmer and flicker of London at night add a shivery emphasis to the sheer blackness of the city yet its ‘tiny lights’ are also reassuring in the darkness too.
City Of Tiny Lights is currently on limited release nationwide