When another set of photos lands on the desk of private investigator Tommy, he doesn’t suspect how tangled in the net of the underworld he’ll become.
As an escort Melodie asks him to find her housemate who went out with a client and never came back, he launches the search – but only to find the man who was with her dead in a hotel room. The extended investigation brings him back to an old friend Hafiz, who’s now a property developer and a co-worker of the murdered executive, and to the net of suspicious connections he’s trying to make sense of while he looks for the missing girl.
Working with Patrick Neate on an adaptation of his novel, Pete Travis builds up a somewhat fascinatin story that gained film noir comparisons for a reason. Our private investigator is a bitter, tough guy with a deep affection for whisky and cigarettes who lands neck-deep in a crime case jam-packed with characters who lie, betray, and hide the facts. There is a femme fatale, of course, and an environment filled with shady types – and for the most part, it engages us in the build-up of the story.
One of the things City of Tiny Lights does very well is cracking into the urban landscape of the capital. And boy, these streets do feel real. From the slang-filled modern London language overpouring from the speech of every character to the connections to contemporary events, the struggles and fears of those who live here, such as housing crisis or terrorism, the city is laid bare as it is. And it’s perhaps so captivating (and appears commonplace, too) because it looks and feels like many neighbourhoods we live in or pass by every day.
Memorable as Tommy, Riz Ahmed owns his hero. His brashness and nonchalance feel truly effortless: he’s a guy next door who cares for his dad and “mentors” a son of his neighbour when asked, but with a secret life that only unravels under the cover of night. Billie Piper as Shelley is also doing her best, even when she is reduced merely to the love interest. She works with what she was given and delivers a mysterious woman burdened by the past. James Floyd as Hafiz is given a role that should receive a bit more screen time and complexity in background motifs to shine. However, Roshan Seth is a highlight amongst secondary characters as a well-mannered father of the main hero who can also be a bit argumentative.
Of the complex story that Travis-Neate duo deliver, the least captivating are the issues Tommy deals with in his personal life. After a sequence of flashbacks, we get to understand his relationship with Shelley, and the reasons for his transformation from a teenager affirming literature to a streetwise private eye. But this attempt at giving him a backstory that makes him much more complex stops halfway. The teenage problems don’t feel real enough, and because they aren’t connected to his present situation as much, they’re used as a water cooler between the adrenaline-fuelled moments.
As much as these deja-vus are a signpost of the genre, there are many more cinematic tricks that topped the visual side with a bit of sleekness. Plentiful of night-time, high-contrast shots support the atmosphere as the camera strikes the off-license shops and small restaurants without unnecessary platitudes. The scattered lights, the neon colours having a play with the darkness, and distortions to the image also make this film a little bit more visually interesting.
Navigating through the weighty narrative, The City of Tiny Lights favours the strong protagonist at a cost of dropping the development of the secondary characters. However, it does offer us an interesting detective story that’s well-executed by the cast and missing only minor bits from becoming more than an average film.