City of Tiny Lights, a modern noir story set in London, is a great showcase for Riz Ahmed’s talents. However, its ambition of addressing the immigrant experience and islamophobia prove more admirable than the execution.
Using the conventions of film noir to tell a story of muslim immigrants in modern day London proves a surprisingly smart conceit in City of Tiny Lights. Based on the novel by Patrick Neate, who also adapted it for the screen, the film centers around private eye Tommy Akhtar (Riz Ahmed), a second generation Pakistani immigrant.
When Tommy stumbles onto a case of a missing prostitute, he finds himself digging up memories from his past: an old flame returns, and an old friend ends up connected to some dirty dealings revealed by Tommy’s investigation. Where the case leads allows the film to explore the pernicious islamophobia in London. As noir characters who inhabit an underground world, outside of the dominant culture, their role in the genre speaks to the way muslim immigrants are treated in society: they tend to get pushed under the rug.
Riz Ahmed’s breakthrough role was as the star of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mira Nair’s intelligent film about the dehumanizing muslim immigration process in England and how that experience can radicalize people. But he’s probably best known for supporting parts in films like Nightcrawler. This summer, he launched out of obscurity thanks to a crucial part in Jason Bourne and his starring role in HBO’s hot summer miniseries, The Night Of. City of Tiny Lights is an excellent showcase for his talents, proving he can play everything from a romantic lead and a hardboiled detective with nuanced voiceovers; Ahmed’s accomplished but subtle voice work is one of the highlights of the film.
Unfortunately, Director Pete Travis is so intent on creating a stylized world for the film — including peppering the background of most shots with blurred multicoloured lights — that he often goes overboard. The extreme emphasis on heightened, coloured lighting and the tropes of noir — from the voiceover to the brooding detective with a secret — serves to take you out of the film’s world by drawing too much attention to it. There isn’t really a femme fatale, but it’s notable that the one woman the film focusses on is a seemingly unattainable blonde, white woman. And the film is almost too carefully plotted, the threads conveniently intertwining to address the film’s themes and issues in ways that strain believability.
Nevertheless, the film breaks new ground in ways that make you wonder how making a genre film about a person of colour is so rare. Almost all of the characters are people of colour, which is a refreshing, realistic vision of the actual urban population. Unlike The Night Of, where Ahmed’s sex scene with a white woman was tentative — he couldn’t believe his luck — and ultimately the source of his downfall, City of Tiny Lights gives us a regular sex scene that’s blind to racial cliches. Ahmed is just a man, a handsome man, having a fling with a woman who sees him as he is: it’s so normal and yet it draws attention to the fact that we rarely get to see Asian men as relatable sexual beings. Ultimately, the film’s ambitions of inclusivity, both in its story and its casting, are more admirable than the execution. Ahmed’s compelling performance carries the film, but I hope his next vehicle is more deserving of his formidable talents.
City of Tiny Lights is an acquisition title seeking North American distribution at the Toronto International Film Festival. It screens again at TIFF on Fri., Sept. 16, and Sun. Sept 18.