City of Tiny Lights is the new British crime thriller from BAFTA-winning director Pete Travis. Written by Patrick Neate, adapted from his 2005 novel of the same name, the gritty noir-esque film offers a modern vision of London’s underworld.

Rising star Riz Ahmed takes the central role of Tommy Akhtar, a man plagued by a dark past and embroiled in an even darker present as a heavy-drinking low-class private investigator, employed by a female escort, Melody, who casually informs him she earns £300 an hour in contrast to his rate of £300 a day: “I’m in the wrong business,” he replies, sat in his dimly lit office in what we understand to be the dodgy part of town. The job is to trace the whereabouts of her housemate, a Russian prostitute, Natasha, who has gone missing. As he begins his hunt, he quickly finds himself caught in the middle of a situation that stretches far beyond the edge of the London underworld he usually operates within. Billie Piper appears as his estranged lover Shelley, and the two share a fraught romance, Tommy unable to let go of a history that overshadows his feelings for her.

Ahmed is brilliant as Tommy, bringing an understated demeanour and charm to his hard-edged but big-hearted (slightly relentlessly) chain-smoking, whisky-swigging underdog character. In particular, he delivers on the witty lines of the script with comic timing and charisma to the effect of some unexpected black comedy moments. And he shines in his dynamics with his London slang-spouting protege, Roshan Seth, his cricket-obsessed yet not-be-underestimated father and Cush Jumbo as Melody, who banters with him about how hookers come up with their names. Billie Piper puts in a good performance as Shelley but her character at times feels a bit flat, the focus remaining on Tommy’s predicament and sense of trauma. James Floyd is dashing as Tommy’s slick but slippery friend Lovely while Hannah Rae is convincing as young Emma, who faces the brutal reality of London’s streets.

The film does attempt to tackle some meaty issues: religious fanaticism comes under the spotlight both from the aspect of its sinister reality and the prejudice that surrounds a misunderstanding of it. And it also seeks to capture something honest and raw about the colourful nature and cultural melting pot unique to the UK capital – not often successfully achieved – as well as to expose the complexities and unseen underbellies of modern-day London as gangs, drugs, greedy property developers, extremists and twisted police all fight out their dominance of the city.

City of Tiny Lights doesn’t quite land the hard edge it seems to aim for – this is no Snatch for example – being let down by some budget-strapped, clunky time jumps to life as an inner-city 90s kid and overly saccharine revelations regarding life, love and friendship that resort to caricature rather than elegant insinuation. But a fantastic performance from Ahmed (raising questions over why we see so few Asian leads), unexpected plot turns, Travis finding the dark comedy in his subject plus an excellent soundtrack (there’s little that says urban Brit more for millennials than The Streets) make for enough moments where grit and humour meet perfectly to be enjoyable.

★★★

By Sarah Bradbury. First published on The Upcoming on 5th April 2017.

City of Tiny Lights is released nationwide on 7th April 2017.

Watch the trailer for City of Tiny Lights here:

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