City of Tiny Lights
dir Pete Travis
scr Patrick Neate
prd Rebecca O'Brien, Ado Yoshizaki Cassuto
with Riz Ahmed, Billie Piper, James Floyd, Cush Jumbo, Roshan Seth, Damson Idris, Hannah Rae, Danny Webb, George Sargeant, Antonio Aakeel, Vincent Regan, Branko Tomovic
release UK 7.Apr.17
16/UK BBC 1h50
City of Tiny Lights
Neon nights: Ahmed

piper floyd jumbo
london film fest
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
City of Tiny Lights An admirable attempt to set a noir mystery in London, this film has terrific atmosphere and a superb central performance by Riz Ahmed. But director Pete Travis, perhaps trying to make up for a low budget, relies far too heavily on swirly-blurry flashbacks that make everything moody but stall the story. So the complexities of novelist-screenwriter Patrick Neate's narrative ultimately lose the audience.

Tommy (Ahmed) works as a private detective in the Northwest London neighbourhood where he grew up and still lives with his feisty father (Seth). His latest client is Melody (Jumbo), a hooker worried because her colleague is missing. But Tommy instead finds a man's body and a link to his old pal Haafiz (Floyd), now a property developer. Working with lively neighbour Hakim (Idris), Tommy also discovers that American spies are snooping around, and a Muslim brotherhood is involved. Meanwhile, he reconnects with his childhood love Shelley (Piper), dredging up long-buried emotions.

Running parallel to this are flashbacks to a pivotal event that took place when Tommy, Haafiz, Shelley and Stu (Sargeant) were 17 years old. But while these scenes add some moving subtext to the film, they never dovetail with the main mystery, which leaves them as little more than distraction. Travis directs all of this with a lush style, using camerawork, music and voiceover to create a strong atmosphere. But instead of clarifying the tangled plot as things progress, he makes it murkier.

The sound mix is also muddy, losing much of the dialog in the process. This adds to the complexity of the movie, but makes it difficult to care about these people. Ahmed has terrific charisma at the centre, adding sharp wit and snappy instincts to each scene. Piper has an even bigger presence, threatening to overshadow him even though her character is underwritten and underused. The side roles are all finely played, but the interconnections remain somewhat undefined even as the story begins to resolve itself.

There's plenty to admire here, from the performances to the stylish visual flourishes. An involving complexity to the characters and their relationships makes them enjoyably unpredictable. And it's nice to see such a realistic depiction of multi-cultural London, even if the narrative plays up divisions rather than the sense of community. But even with these intriguing textures, there's a nagging superficiality to the people and plot. There's a lot going on beneath the surface, but it's very difficult to see.

cert 15 themes, language, violence, sexuality 20.Mar.17

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© 2017 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall