The noir genre is alive, if not exactly well, in the contemporary thriller City of Tiny Lights. The film has a fine enough pedigree, with The Night Of star and Nightcrawler standout Riz Ahmed leading the story of a London private detective investigating a young woman’s disappearance, with Dredd and Vantage Point director Pete Travis at the helm. But while it checks off most of the boxes of a noir and drenches itself in plenty of nods to the genre as a whole, it’s sidelined by a predictable screenplay and miscalculation in terms of visual style. There’s plenty to admire—including the fact that the film tries to blend the noir genre with timely terrorist-threat issues—but little to actually like.
Ahmed plays Tommy Akhtar, a London detective with a drinking problem, a terminally ill father, and plenty of bills to pay. One night, a young prostitute named Melody (Cush Jumbo) walks into his office, asking if he’ll look into the disappearance of her friend Natasha. A series of clues lead Tommy to a Holiday Inn, where he discovers Natasha’s “date”—a prominent Islamic businessman—dead on the bed, with no sign of Natasha to be found. As Tommy delves deeper into the case, he’s lead to an organization for Islamic Youth, which then puts Tommy under investigation by the federal counter-terrorism authorities.
Threaded throughout this central mystery are connections to Tommy’s haunted past, spurred by the anniversary of his teenage best friend Stuart’s death and the reappearance of his best friend’s girlfriend. The circumstances surrounding Stuart’s death are slowly revealed through a series of flashbacks, as we come to learn why Tommy acts so bummed all the time.
From the get-go it’s clear City of Tiny Lights aspires to be a genuine noir, but Travis and cinematographer Felix Wiedemann opt for a handheld, shaky-cam visual style that undermines the conventions of the genre and, frankly, only serve to make the viewer sick. I understand it’s in service of trying to ground the story in a more contemporary setting, and to make the gritty world around Tommy seem more real, but it proves a distraction, and when Ahmed’s classic noir voiceover comes in, it results in a disconnect between the film’s audio and visual tones.
Ahmed keeps things interesting and has more than proven he’s a tremendous actor; he handles the “troubled down-on-his-luck” noir lead well, as well as the narrative twists and turns that his character takes. But unfortunately the script (Patrick Neate adapts his own novel of the same name) fails to elevate City of Tiny Lights above anything more than a minor mystery story. The film thinks it’s keeping the secrets of the case under wraps, but the audience figures out most of the plot at least halfway through, resulting in a tedious whodunit for the latter half. The same is true of the flashback story, which also presents a parallel mystery of sorts, but tips its hand way in advance of the “big reveal.”
The film gets credit for at least trying to tie the noir genre into contemporary issues, tackling the subtle racism of the counter-terrorism fight and the outsider nature of Tommy—a non-white son of an immigrant—in his London surroundings. Unfortunately, the film fails to spin these into fulfilling themes or topics, simply letting them rest there as something to notice, but not necessarily something that is driven home in any significant way.
The noir genre is obviously one rich for plenty of storytelling possibilities. It has its tropes and clichés, but those can be spun into delightful and refreshing new entries. With City of Tiny Lights, the film is stuck trying to bridge the gap between the touchstones of the genre and a new, timely contemporary story. It fails to do so, and given that the story itself isn’t all that interesting or compellingly told, it results in a disappointing and somewhat boring drama that rests almost entirely on Ahmed’s captivating performance.
The City of Tiny Lights does not currently have a release date.
To catch up on all of our TIFF 2016 coverage thus far click here, or peruse our list of reviews below:
- American Pastoral
- The Bad Batch
- The Birth of a Nation
- Blair Witch
- The Bleeder
- Free Fire
- The Handmaiden
- The Limehouse Golem
- The Magnificent Seven
- Manchester by the Sea
- A Monster Calls
- Nocturnal Animals
- The Promise
- Strange Weather
- Their Finest
- Trespass Against Us
- A United Kingdom
- Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey