So my new crush is Riz Ahmed. A little obvious because he’s Hollywood’s new darling. But he’s British so we claim him first. Since the days of Shifty (2008) Mr. Ahmed has come a long way from Wembley.
City of Tiny Lights, set in West London is the film adaptation of British author, Patrick Neate’s crime-thriller novel of the same name. Neate’s novel synopsis is as follows:
Tommy Akhtar is a Ugandan Asian cricket fan, devoted son, and not very successful private investigator with offices over his brother Gundappa’s mini-cab firm in deepest West London. He’s just woken up from his hangover when his next case comes through the door. It looks like just another investigation when hooker Melody comes into his office asking him to find her co-worker, Natasha, last seen meeting new client at a bar in Shepherd’s Market. But as the search for Natasha intensifies, Tommy’s world becomes increasingly sinister. He is drawn into a murder investigation, the criminal underworld, the world of fundamentalist religion and maybe even terrorist activities.
Riz plays Tommy and indeed is a lo-key private investigator who still lives at home with his ailing but still witty and endearing cricket fanatic dad Farzad (Roshan Seth – Indian Summers). Sidenote – Farzad’s best friend and fellow cricket fan is played by Ram John Holder aka Porkpie of Desmond’s and Porkpie fame.
Seeing RJ Holder was the first of many comforts when watching City of Tiny Lights. Filmed across Ladbroke Grove and surrounding West London locale, it was good to see recognisable landmarks up on the big screen, grounding the its authenticity.
The film doesn’t stray too far from the novel. In that Melody played comfortably by Cush Jumbo (The Good Fight) is a prostitute who turns to Tommy for help after her fellow prostitute friend goes missing. Taking Tommy on a journey which somehow forces him to confront his past as an awkward teen trying to fit in and now as an adult man trying to find his purpose.
Upon investigating the disappearance, Tommy stumbles upon the dead body of a well known Pakistani businessman, reconnects with two significant old friends from his teenage years – homie Haafiz “Lovely” Ansari (James Floyd – The Good Karma Hotel) and teenage love Michelle/Shelley (Billie Piper – Penny Dreadful) and uncovers a trail of property corruption, radical Islam and questionable allegiances.
Is City of Lights any good? I think so. Although some reviews are saying it’s boring and slow; maybe relies too heavily on thriller-noir clichés, I think it’s a watchable film. Riz is brilliant. He’s the right side of cocky, intense and very London. He’s the crux of the film and carries it well. Maybe a different actor would have exposed more of the film’s flaws. Oh, Tommy definitely smokes and drinks way too much…
I found Billie Piper as the love interest a little off kilter. The storyline behind Tommy and Shelley’s crossed paths which had been uncrossed because of a fatal incident in their teens, for them to conveniently meet up for the first time as adults for the convenience of Tommy’s story and the film, seemed a little weak to me. There were a few things that didn’t add up, thus the film plot rules of the lead needing a love interest felt a little unthoughtful… the dots weren’t all the way connected. Having not read the novel, I can’t however blame it on the adaptation solely. Jumbo’s Melody had better chemistry with Tommy…
That said, other characters including Reiss Kershi Hussain who plays young Tommy in the teenage year flashbacks does a good job. Mohammad Ali Amiri who plays Avi, Tommy’s rudeboy sidekick allows for some funny banter. Although it was here where racial stereotyping and race became a problem for me. It started to get highly irritating when the audience kept over laughing at every piece of street slang uttered by Avi. Avi is representative of the typical inner city youth, who speaks with a hybrid slang of Caribbean, African and Cockney isms often parodied by non black and Asian people with an Ali G perspective. Disliked Ali G and what he represented. Disliked the way the audience laughed at every single thing Avi said that wouldn’t be funny to you or I (assuming you’re an inner city kid, all grown up).
There was more of that when dealing with the underlying theme of radical Islam and terrorism, when the police warning Tommy to stay out of their way and off their investigation, believe the murder and disappearances have something to do with the local mosque and a Muslim male youth group. At one point Riz’s character Tommy has an unbelievably disrespectful exchange with the mosque’s Mullah played by Alexander Siddig. I’m not Muslim, I’m not Asian. But there are things being African and sharing similar rules of respect when it comes to adults, that I culturally assume wouldn’t happen. I didn’t believe Tommy’s attitude in the presence of a respected community leader… it also served as an excuse for the audience to laugh along, prejudices intact.
But what I did like was the representation of London and some of its issues with judgement and prejudice when it comes to the Muslim community. It also attempted to humanise the young boys we see wearing those long dresses and bushy beards. They aren’t all wannabe terrorists. They do have a strong sense of love for their London communities.
City of Tiny Lights goes on general UK release Friday 7th April 2016