City of Tiny Lights  (15) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Pete Travis, UK, 2016, 110 mins

Cast:  Riz Ahmed, Billie Piper, James Floyd, Cush Jumbo

Review by Carol Allen

This has the makings of a good contemporary British style private eye film noir – a 21st century “Charlie Bubbles” perhaps?  While having some really good elements though it doesn’t quite get hit the spot.

The City of Tiny Lights of the title is London – a point made with really impressive wide aerial shots throughout the film of the metropolis at night.   In its on the ground shooting, the film also captures the feeling of the city, avoiding the clichés of Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus and other landmarks, though as a Londoner I would have liked it to be a bit more specific in terms of where the action takes place.

The story concerns private eye Tommy Atker (Ahmed), chain smoking (that will upset the health police!), hard drinking (ditto) and surprisingly healthy looking considering his lifestyle.  His current client is prostitute Melody (Jumbo), who charges him with finding her flatmate, who has disappeared in the course of her work.  Near the beginning of the film Tommy and Melody share an amusingly evocative Borgart/Bacall type sexy moment involving the lighting of cigarettes (see health police note above).  When the flatmate’s client, with whom she was last seen, is found murdered, the trail takes Tommy not only into the complex, contemporary world of MI5, drug trafficking and radical Islam but also back to his teenage past in the nineties, involving the gang members he used to hang out with.  They include Lovely (Floyd), now a successful entrepreneur and Shelley (Piper), the girl he fell for in a complicated situation involving the death of his then best friend.

The characters in the story reflect the cultural diversity of the city without turning it into an overt political statement and the actors are all impressive. They also include Roshan Seth giving a delightful characterisation as Tommy’s cricket fanatic father. The flashbacks to the past are smoothly handled and intriguing, though the casting of the teenage versions of Tommy and Lovely leave something to be desired.  The younger actors in appearance fail to convince that they could grow up into their adult counterparts, though Hannah Rae who doubles as Young Shelley and adult Shelley’s daughter makes a convincing young Billie Piper.  Piper herself, while making the most of her scenes, is somewhat underused as is Floyd as Lovely.  Never was a character more aptly named though.  He looks like a Bollywood film star in this.

The film does however strain too hard for style, making liberal and confusing use of tricky, blurry camera work in places, which doesn’t serve the narrative well.  And as the story progresses, it loses its initial sense of clarity, failing to lead us effectively through the increasingly complicated scenario in which Tommy is involved.  By the end we know who the bad guy is but we’re not sure what exactly he was up to and how he connects to the other plot strands.