Fresh out of Rogue One, HBO’s The Night Of, and a very welcome stint on Girls, Riz Ahmed’s got the good sense to be taking advantage of his current profile, spreading himself around and trying a few different things. City Of Tiny Lights is certainly different, in that no one really makes private-eye noirs anymore, but is significant mainly in that it shows Ahmed as a leading man whose presence can be banked on to get a few British bums on seats.
Horses should be held on that one, of course: you don’t expect it to smash any box-office records. But it marks a point in his career: he’s the star, and essentially the only reason anyone, other than big fans of director Pete Travis’ Dredd, is going to see it. It all hangs on him.
He’s more than up to it. His Tommy Akhtar is a quiet, thoughtful private eye, in over his head but not letting the exterior crack. He’s commissioned by a beautiful prostitute to find her missing friend (she’s entirely unshaken by this disappearance, joking and flirting with Tommy in his office because Hey! All prostitutes want sex all the time!), but when he looks for her he finds only a dead man and a whole heap of trouble. As he digs deeper he gets mixed up in a night-time world of shady property deals, religious extremists and friends from his past.
This past is one of City’s more successful elements. Tommy and his friend Lovely, and old flame Shelley, grew up around here drinking cider on the swings and playing football with Coke cans, and the flashback scenes feature excellent acting from the mainly inexperienced young cast, with a particularly eerie dead ringer for a younger Riz in Reiss Kershi-Hussain. There’s a trauma they all share, and how it’s teased out gradually in line with the A-story is a credit to them and to Travis’ steady hand.
While Ahmed is an effective guide through west London’s seamier corners (happily, no establishing shots of Big Ben or tourist spots: this is Acton, baby) and the story just about rich enough, you can’t shake the feeling that without him you wouldn’t be watching much. There are problems with the script, like a voiceover that you think is going to be a feature, which then disappears for an hour. The dialogue clangs quite frequently, not helped by the occasional bit of Grange Hill-style delivery from the wider cast that we really should’ve excised from British film by now. And the attempt at genre homage is a bit too self-conscious: does Tommy need to smoke so heavily, enjoy Scotch and wise-crack in the face of danger? In a sense these are flags Travis raises to show you what he’s doing, but we get it already. Some of it comes off as parody and arrests your concentration, like the old ‘I knew this dame was trouble the minute she walked into my office’ riff we get at the beginning.
You can’t ignore either that the female characters you’re presented with mainly work as prostitutes. Cush Jumbo’s Melody, Tommy’s office visitor at the start, is uncomplicatedly happy to be doing so. There’s a school of thought that would call this sort of unabashed ownership of her profession empowering, but even if you subscribed to it you’d have to acknowledge that Melody is still there to be saved by Tommy, so the film isn’t really allowing her agency, more just sweeping the issues around prostitution under the carpet in service of an easy saviour narrative. Billie Piper’s role as Shelley is similarly underdeveloped: though she’s working and raising her daughter independently we don’t see much of this, and in practice she’s another woman who needs his help when it all goes south.
It’s certainly not a dud: Ahmed carries it just as far as you need him to, and it’s stylishly shot and surprisingly funny. If he’s going to be a big star, which looks like his likely trajectory, and he wants to carry on popping up in and supporting independent British films, then good for him: not everyone does. But he’ll have more options now, and there may be slightly better ones than this.
City Of Tiny Lights is in UK cinemas now.