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Review: City of Tiny Lights – “Sexy pulp thrillers such as this are seldom seen”

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“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, white, working class 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 it is while addressing the anxieties of contemporary city living. Sinister corporate conspiracies, gentrification, community, class disparity, Islamic fundamentalism and existential trepidation are all part and parcel of the character’s make-up and the city engulfing them. 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 Akhtar one 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 1990’s 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, adapted his own work for the screen. This is a corker of a script, quite clearly orchestrated through the echoes of Raymond Chandler, but there’s also great London author, J.G. Ballard (Trellick Tower, inspiration for ‘High-Rise’, has a prominent position within the beautiful mise-en-scene courtesy of cinematographer Felix Wiedemann). 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. When 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 British youth, his performance in this effectively representing the aimless and insecure 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 fellow British crime thriller, ‘Welcome to the Punch’ (2013), another film with visual panache inspired by its Hollywood counterparts. These are British genre films unafraid to look gorgeous in their visual sheen and 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.

City of Tiny Lights opens in the UK on 7th April 2017.

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