London-set contemporary neo-noir is a breath of fresh air with a charismatic central performance

David G. Hughes on Pete Travis’s ‘City of Tiny Lights’ (2016)

I deal in the lies people tell and the truths they don’t.”

This is how chain-smoking PI Tommy Akhtar (Riz Ahmed) introduces himself. It’s the sort of cynically-infused, fatalistic, novelistic voiceover we most associate with the otherworldly dry lisp of Humphrey Bogart, not a North London actor of Pakistani descent. Yet Riz Ahmed, whose charisma and talent brings the gumshoe to life, has cemented himself as the new King of Cool and one of the most exciting actors of his generation in this taut London-set neo-noir.

Too long the British crime film has been bogged down by the anachronism of Guy Ritchie envy —witty male worlds built on banter, beer and bravado. City of Tiny Lights, in contrast, feels entirely of this moment, a portrayal of London for the Sadiq Khan years, one that takes pluralism and multiculturalism as the norm while addressing the anxieties of contemporary city living. Even more sinister corporate conspiracies, swarming gentrification, decrepit communities, class disparity, Islamic radicalisation and existential trepidation are all part and parcel of the city and the characters caught within. Just as the 1940s “Film Noir” exemplified the anxieties of the post-war American society, this is a city dripping with vice, corruption, crisis and doubt; London is post-industrial, post-collective, filled with back-alleys, blinking neon lights and smoke-filled decadence — a film that knows how to use the city for dramatic purpose and captures our uncertain zeitgeist, even as it entertains as a pulpy novella.

Small-time Akhtar has to learn to become big-time pretty quickly once he gets involved in a job involving a missing prostitute that soon escalates into something more sinister. He’s a lone-wolf, a heavy drinker, the sort of individualist hero we associate with the classic noir or western. But a number of flashbacks take us back to the promise of 1990s youth, when Akhtar and other players in the investigation (Billie Piper, James Floyd) shared lives as close friends. This serves to contrast the idealism of youth, shared dreams and promise with contemporary individualism, the collapse of social equality and all the insecurity and loneliness that befalls one as a result. There is great melancholy to this film, but also plenty of love — love for people and love for the city.

The film is based on a novel by the poet and journalist Patrick Neate, adapting his own work for the screen. This is a corker of a script, quite clearly orchestrated through the echoes of Raymond Chandler, but in the mass alienation within the cityscape, there are also hints of great London author J.G. Ballard (Kensal Town’s Trellick Tower, brutalist inspiration for High-Rise, has a prominent position within the beautiful mise-en-scene courtesy of cinematographer Felix Wiedemann) and American auteur Michael Mann. Lines such as “I’ve got bog roll more abrasive than you,” stand out as witty bon mots, made funny and convincing by man-of-the-moment Riz Ahmed. Ahmed, in a buzz cut and leather jacket, strikes a handsome figure and a pensive pose, capable of effortlessly swerving in and out of comedy and drama. Appearing on Stephen Colbert recently, Ahmed said, referring to his complexion, “this is what British looks like.” As a fine artist and actor, he is a great symbol of contemporary British youth, his performance in this effectively representing the aimless, disenfranchised and apathetic rebels that we’ve all become.

Sexy pulp thrillers such as this are seldom seen, especially in British cinema. This would make a great double-bill with with fellow crime caper, Welcome to the Punch (2013), another film with visual panache inspired by its Hollywood counterparts. These are British genre films unafraid to look gorgeous and exist in a heightened reality by way of visual sheen and erotic spectacle. London here is both refreshingly authentic and heightened, a diaphanous, duplicitous metropolis from a graphic novel. The sappy ending betrays the film noir heritage laughably, but this is a minor misstep in an otherwise effective and involving thriller, one that recalls the glory days of Hollywood while feeling only ever of this moment. You shouldn’t miss it.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.