The voice-over in the beginning of City of Tiny Lights, the latest film from director Pete Travis (Dredd, Tesseract), might seem at odds with its hand-held cinematography and the gritty scenery of London, but as soon as Tommy Akhtar opens the door of his second-story office to a young woman named Melody, it starts making sense.
Tommy is a private eye and Melody is a prostitute looking for her missing roommate, a fellow Russian prostitute named Natasha. If you’re reminded of Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, you’re on the right track. Yet instead of a square-jawed white guy in a suit and tie or a blonde woman in victory rolls and red lipstick, the film gives us Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Rogue One) and Cush Jumbo (Torchwood, The Good Fight).
It’s a refreshing change of pace to see a noir that doesn’t rely on either period costume or white people for its legitimacy, and it’s also nice to see one that portrays characters at the fringes of society with dignity and respect. What’s even more refreshing is that the subject matter of City Of Tiny Lights both follows the tropes of noir (it won’t take long to figure out which character is not who he seems) and subverts them (Humphrey Bogart never had to deal with religious and anti-terrorism fundamentalists). It could even be argued that the requisite femme fatale has been gender flipped.
Like many other noir films, City of Tiny Lights also employs flashbacks, but not in the standard way. Rather than introducing them as such, they are presented somewhat seamlessly as Tommy’s memories, which come flooding back to him when an old friend reenters his life unexpectedly.
The script, adapted by Patrick Neate from his 2005 novel of the same name, is clever, and gives Ahmed a chance to utilize some gumshoe-style one-liners that befit the tone of the film. North American viewers might have a hard time following some of the British slang and heavy accents, but the movie is not so labyrinthine that it becomes obtuse.
The only real drawbacks to City of Tiny Lights are the sometimes drawn-out pacing of scenes and some slo-mo cinematography that can be a distraction from the action at hand. Fortunately, the cast, which also includes Billie Piper and Roshan Seth, is outstanding, and their skills help to smooth out a lot of the imperfections of the film.