The era of the traditional film-noir has long since vanished into the annals of history. Gone are the rain-soaked streets of murky metropolises, and internal monologues that dance among clouds of cigarette smoke have faded into obscurity. That is, until director Pete Travis took a glance at a 12-year old novel and immediately resolved to make a feature film out of it.
City of Tiny Lights is not a particularly stand-out book, and the same applies to its adaptation. The plot is somewhat typical of the genre – Tommy Akhtar (Riz Ahmed), a cynical gumshoe with a rocky past, is called upon by new client Melody (Cush Jumbo) to investigate the disappearance of her friend. Armed only with his wits, contacts, and the hardened squint that is almost permanently glued to his face, Tommy takes on the case only to find that the situation is far from simple. Opposition rears its head, old memories bubble back up to the surface and things get complicated as the plot shifts towards a conspiracy that doesn’t really have any solid emotional payoff.
Written by Patrick Neate, the aforementioned book’s original author, City of Tiny Lights aims to bring us back to the Sleuth Age with gusto. Every essential ingredient from the noir handbook is present and on full display – ravenous consumption of cigarettes and bourbon, moody introspective rumination, femme fatales, guys in suits and cities plunged into darkness, illuminated only by glaring streetlamps and copious amounts of neon lights. The visual slickness, however, cannot disguise a product that is thoroughly mediocre in every respect. It is acted decently enough, that much is certain, but the central roles fail to leave much of a lasting impression. Ahmed tries the hardest out of the top-billed stars but Billie Piper phones in her performance as Shelley, Tommy’s enigmatic former fling. The other performances from the core cast are nothing to write home about, and often the leads find themselves upstaged by the secondary cast. In particular, Roshan Seth steals the show in almost every scene he shows up in as Tommy’s father, Farzad, bombarding the audience with cricket metaphors and generally seeming like he’s exerting actual effort. He is a pleasure to watch – but the same cannot be said for a great many others as their performances land squarely in the middle of the road.
The core of any mystery, though, is its central plot, and in its fleetingly brief 107-minute running time the film ultimately fails to deliver something that is punchy and gripping which leaves the audiences craning forwards on the edges of their seats. Despite the relative brevity of its running time the film is content to linger in places where it shouldn’t, indulging itself in the shroud of darkness that envelopes London almost perpetually and showing our brooding hero looking pensively into the middle distance as he attempts to evoke an image of a modern-day Sherlock. The main story becomes duller and increasingly frustrating over the passage of time as the solution for this lukewarm case of whodunit becomes obvious as time passes and you’ll find yourself wishing for the whole affair to fast forward so the obvious can be spelled out. Held aloft by slow shots of scenery and cityscapes the film is cripplingly languid, and the fleeting instances of decidedly British humour are among the only brit sparks in these plodding interim periods.
The odd pacing does, however, highlight the film’s commendable scene composition. London at night is a place that can be equally alluring and forbidding, and the film captures that essence well. The mood maintained by this constant air of lingering murkiness remains consistent throughout the feature and there are multiple striking shots or uses of contrasting lighting for the sake of enhancing scenes. In the visual department, there resides the spectre of the noir genre, a glimpse of what this could have been if it were cleaned up. The visuals are undeniable strong and atmospheric, though often it does unfortunately veer into the realm of excess – for instance the film goes to great lengths to avoid the sky being shown in any state that is better than overcast. The number of times a blue sky is seen can be counted on one hand. Nevertheless, the cinematography is solid. It is a shame, then, that everything else just seems so rote.
The thrust of the overarching story lacks in any real intrigue or suspense, spiking only briefly whenever Tommy is hounded by a mysterious American agent or when the film dips into a short examination of religious extremism. What the plot boils down to will doubtlessly leave you baffled, and the central characters certainly don’t save the tale from mediocrity. Most of them have the depth of a murky puddle and the charisma of a cinderblock, which makes it difficult to properly sympathise with Tommy’s emotional turmoil whenever the film shoves another flashback to the forefront of the proceedings. As with any adaption, elements are often pared down, and to give credit to Neate many of Tommy’s original traits from the novel have been removed – there, he was an ex-mujahideen, and there is no doubt that aspect of his personality was removed to not cause offense. Despite this, one cannot help but feel that a more interesting lead was cast aside, if only for the absurdity of it all. Additionally, the removal of material exclusive to the novel hinders more than it helps. The themes that were explored there are excised in favour of generic emotional schmaltziness, tarnished friendships and other sundry stuff, in large part owing to a distinct lack of rumination on Tommy’s behalf. The other members of the cast are already lacking, but to reduce the lead character to a shell of his former self, even in the interest of streamlining the final product, is destructively reductive.
All these problems mount and compound as City of Tiny Lights tries to be an intriguing yarn and an impassioned throwback to days old with little modern touches added to it, yet the cards are ultimately stacked against it. Despite the cast trying to make it work with passable performances, instances of genuine if curious humour and moments of genuinely striking cinematography, it is ultimately little more than a chain-smoking, bourbon-chugging squib.