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City of Tiny Lights | 2016 Toronto Int. Film Festival Review

Farewell, My Lovely: Travis Tries Urban Neo Noir in Prosaic Adaptation

One gets the sense the source novel by Patrick Neate is a bit more of an invigorating read than director Pete Travis’ version of his City of Tiny Lights, despite the scribe adapting his own narrative for the screen. A descendant of Ugandan-Indian immigrants becomes a successful private eye in contemporary London, navigating the troubling criminal underworld frequented increasingly by fellow (as he calls himself) Pakis no one seems willing to understand or care about. A past tragedy relates conveniently to a troubled present in a narrative reaching resolution too neatly and easily to feel like anything more than a ruse, while Travis instills an omnipresent, heavy handed noir homage for his brooding visuals to usurp both characterization and storyline. More frustrating than ingenious, the sinister possibilities of the teeming underworld in London’s sprawling metropolis are hobbled by a dependence on its protagonist’s past, and a banal tragedy still somewhat more interesting than the clichéd conspiracy formula utilizing modern day buzz words to evoke a sense of gravity.

P.I. Tommy Akhtar’s (Ahmed) life is about to change, but he doesn’t realize it yet. Living a down and out existence, hampered by his own problems, which include dealing with his aging father (Roshan Seth), a beautiful prostitute named Melody (Cush Jumbo) suddenly visits his London office, wishing him to track down her roommate Natasha, missing for eight hours. Not taking the job so seriously, he quickly finds himself in over his head. Meanwhile, the case brings him in contact with figures from his haunted past, including his past old flame Shelley (Billie Piper), now a single mother and hungry to get reacquainted. But as Tommy digs deeper into the case of the missing prostitute, he threatens to expose something much more sinister.

A consistently underrated supporting player, Riz Ahmed (perhaps best known for Nightcrawler, 2014) has appeared in a number of notable auteur projects, including work for Mira Nair, Michael Winterbottom, not to mention a superb performance in Ben Drew’s directorial debut iLL Manors (2012), which failed to nab US distribution (in a year’s time, statements like these regarding Ahmed will become obsolete since he will soon be seen in an upcoming Star Wars installment). He’s a likeable figure for this re-tooling of the secretive private eye, his ethnic background an important element in a film (allowing for several sequences with Roshan Seth as his father, still instantly recognizable from his Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom days) which could have made better use of such subtexts by showing rather than telling, a pity since this formula has all the makings of a great Chandler novel with a bit of contemporary heft. Tommy’s omniscient narration explains more than it should with on the nose statements (“Pakis can be invisible, even to each other”), while shared dialogue is often clunky, particularly during his reacquaintance with Shelley.

In noir, women are important configurations, and City of Tiny Lights drops the ball with both its significant entries, particularly with Billie Piper’s Shelley, a borderline obnoxious white woman (guess what comes into play), but also with Cush Jumbo as a prostitute femme fatale who hires Tommy in the first place. Both characterizations are lacking a certain energy which courts audience engagement. Other familiar faces fail to add any spark, including James Floyd (who headlined 2012’s My Brother the Devil), a prominent figure in the third act along sidelined by plot point involving an Islamic terrorist group (allowing for a brief moment with Alexander Siddig).

Victor Molero’s production design enhances nighttime London as a sickly, neon lit assembly of nightclubs and unappealing streets littered with roving packs of young men. In fact, most of City of Tiny Lights looks like a purple and yellow bruise trying to heal. DP Felix Wiedemann has some beautiful frames here, but often, in what appears to be an effort to enhance dramatic intensity, unnecessary zoom-ins on subjects tend to ruin the ambience.

Travis, whose 2012 reboot Dredd 3D was much better than box office or reputation would suggest, struggles sometimes to get beyond the mechanics of his genre. Much like his multi-perspective action thriller Vantage Point (2008), this too often suffers from the self-awareness of what it should be rather than just existing on its own terms as its own material.


Reviewed on September 12th at the Toronto Int. Film Festival – Special Presentations Programme.
107 Minutes

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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