City Of Tiny Lights Review

The Plot

A London private detective is paid to search for a missing girl, but his routine case soon escalates into a murky web of murder and international espionage. He also finds faces form his past forcing him to revisit past personal traumas.

The Good

Played out on the permanently rain drenched streets of London’s less glamorous side, City Of Tiny Lights does a fine job of making the very most of stretching a modest budget with some well-crafted film noir cinematography and carefully chosen locations.  The film manages to adeptly  homage all the familiar tropes of the classic detective tale but replaces American clichés with something more distinctly British.

Leading man Riz Ahmed is a perfect example of the film’s ability to inject some genuinely unique qualities into a genre too often ruined by over familiarity. Ahmed is rapidly emerging as a breakthrough trans-Atlantic talent with obvious justification. He once again turns in a performance good enough to elevate his scenes into something far more intriguing and nuanced. His diminutive frame and ethnicity already innately defy tired genre stereotypes, but likewise they shouldn’t distract from a generally strong display of acting prowess.  Ahmed’s innately watchable screen presence is a strange blend of kind hearted vulnerability and worldly apathy.

The film as a whole eschews convention and pushes hard to be something at least partly original as opposed to merely pantomiming the film noir playbook. At times, particularly when laced with effective humour the film does manage to achieve those laudable ambitions. In particular it’s refreshing to see the film handle British Asian culture as a backdrop to a standard detective yarn, without allowing that to ever become a heavy handed sole focus of proceedings.

The Bad

While the film does well to maintain high quality production values and keep the story for the most part grounded in a fairly convincing reality, inevitably as the film slides into its third act some of its plot twist become a little more predictable and melodramatic. Also despite the film’s best intentions it’s hard to ignore that fact that the sprawling scale and seedy glamour of LA does makes for a somewhat more epic backdrop  for classic detective drama than a central London wine bar or a small semi-detached house. Even with the cloak of night-time darkness a liberal use of wide angle cityscapes London still feels a little too real to be the setting for film noir fantasy, especially for British audiences.

The film’s efforts to tie present day proceedings with a childhood trauma suffered by Ahmed’s hard drinking detective and his teenage friends does feel a little laboured as the film progresses. Persistent flashbacks to younger version of Ahmed and Billie Piper’s characters are too frequent and ruined to an extent by a failure to find younger actors able to physically match their older selves. In particular Piper’s distinctive Cheshire cat grin is noticeably absent in the younger version of her character. Such distractions would be more forgivable for one brief flashback but given the frequency and narrative importance of these scenes it’s disappointing that neither version of the characters create any convincing continuity.

It also doesn’t help that Billie Piper is largely reduced to spectator duties throughout her brief screen time and that Riz Ahmed is the only cast member to really be given any opportunity to create a performance of any depth.

Having done well to establish some good early momentum and intrigue it’s also fair to say that the longer the film goes on for the further ahead of the plot the audiences become. By the climax of the story any attentive audience will unfortunately be easily predicting every supposedly dramatic twist.

The Ugly Truth

City Of Tiny Lights boasts a typically strong performance from rapidly rising star Riz Ahmed, it also manages to deliver a surprisingly well produced British version of a typical classic American crime genre. The film grasps audience attention with relative firmness throughout.

Review by Russell Nelson

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