First published by RealCrime Magazine
City of Tiny Lights has all the signifiers of a classic film noir. There’s the bourbon-swilling protagonist, and the dame returning from ‘out of the past‘. There are the urban streets and the endless rain. There is the nocturnal demi-monde of cops and ‘tecs, dealers and spies, money men and missing persons. Yet the location in post-millennial West London, and the clashes and contradictions of contemporary multiculturalism that are staged there ensure that this is noir very much of the neo variety. Here both the genre frame, and the mystery narrative, offer a familiar prism through which to view new structures emerging from the old.
Tommy Akhtar (Riz Ahmed) is a second-generation immigrant, after his cricket-obsessed father Farzad (Roshan Seth), now slowly dying of prostate cancer, fled Uganda for England in 1970. A private detective, Tommy is hired by prostitute ‘Melody’ (Cush Jumbo) to find her missing colleague, the Russian Natasha. As Tommy’s investigation reveals foul play, and sees him caught between local Muslim radicals and American spooks, between rising apartment blocks and back alleys, his old flame Shelley (Billie Piper) also returns to town with her now teenaged daughter Emma (Hannah Rae), dredging up all manner of painful memories that might just be intimately, if obliquely, related to the case.
If City of Tiny Lights begins with wide-shot montages of Acton’s lowrise and highrise in the dawn, that is because this is a film of both place, and of real estate, in which ever-present cranes mark the rapid gentrification of this working class neighbourhood. In the shadows of housing developments presided over by Tommy’s old friend turned entrepreneur ‘Lovely’ (James Floyd), drug dealers vie with Islamic fundamentalists for control of the streets, and Tommy cannot be sure whether the local Mullah’s followers or the authorities are the true terrorists (Patrick Neate adapted the film’s screenplay from his own novel, which came out the same year as the 2005 London bombings).
City of Tiny Lights is a portrait of a metropolis riven by racial, economic and political tensions, with Tommy, an Afro-Pakistani Muslim who drinks, has a white girlfriend, and enjoys a Christmas dinner, representing a positive embodiment of some of the paradoxes on which the modern city has been founded. Tommy’s long dark night of the soul maps out his neighbourhood’s past and present, while offering a harmonious vision of the future, far beneath all the glittering new executive accommodation. In the end it may all be wrapped up a bit too neatly – and too nicely – but on the way there, Pete Dredd Travis’ film uncovers many layers of treachery lining the mean streets of London.
© Anton Bitel