City of Tiny Lights review: "A rich, rewarding crime film, shot with real skill"

GamesRadar+ Verdict

A rich, rewarding crime film, shot with real skill. Riz Ahmed confirms his status as one of the most exciting Brit actors of his generation.

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For those who’ve seen Riz Ahmed in HBO’s New York-set The Night of, Pete Travis’ beguiling noir will feel like a London companion piece. Adapted by Patrick Neate from his own 2005 novel, it centres on Ahmed’s Tommy Akhtar, a private eye who returns to his west London family home to look after his cricket-mad father (Roshan Seth), who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. 

Soon enough, he gets embroiled in a case that leads him back to his own teenage years when high-class escort Melody (Cush Jumbo) hires him to find her missing Russian flatmate. (“I charge £300 a day,” he mutters. “I charge £300 an hour,” she retorts.) His search leads him to a Mayfair hotel; the flatmate is nowhere to be found but her client, a Pakistani businessman, is dead as a proverbial doornail. 

Clues soon point towards Tommy’s old friend-turned-property developer Haafiz (James Floyd). Past and present further intertwine when Shelley (Billie Piper), friends with both during their adolescent years, comes back on the scene. Now a single mother working as a hostess in a glitzy bar, Shelley represents what might have been.

In the rain-and-neon soaked streets, Travis conjures an air of regret that’s pure Raymond Chandler. But if the world-weary voiceover and corrupt politicos feel like well-worn noir tropes, the setting freshens things up: Tommy’s investigation takes him into a Muslim community rife with economic instability, street drugs and pockets of Islamic extremism. One particular encounter with the head honcho of an Islamic Youth Group (Alexander Siddig) is chilling, but screenwriter Neate is careful not to turn this into an overly political tract.

With Ahmed every bit as compelling here as he is in The Night of, City sees him continuing to grow as a performer. Fresh from her acclaimed stage turn in Yerma, Piper is also spot on. The British-born Travis (Dredd, Vantage Point) also seems to revel in the UK locale, seizing the chance to put a new spin on familiar gumshoe territory.

Much of the vibrancy comes from the director’s collaboration with cinematographer Felix Weidemann, who offers up a poetic depiction of night-time London: eschewing the usual fly-over shots of the Eye and Parliament, COTL treats us to an intoxicating street-level view. The capital city hasn’t felt this alive on film in years.

Some will baulk at the too-eager use of flashbacks, a slightly indulgent running time and even a rather-too-obvious villain. But small gripes aside, this is a unique and evocative mystery with a modern and hugely relevant edge. The first Muslim noir? More please.

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Freelance writer

James Mottram is a freelance film journalist, author of books that dive deep into films like Die Hard and Tenet, and a regular guest on the Total Film podcast. You'll find his writings on GamesRadar+ and Total Film, and in newspapers and magazines from across the world like The Times, The Independent, The i, Metro, The National, Marie Claire, and MindFood.