Wednesday, June 14, 2017

City of Tiny Lights

Pete Travis’s ‘City of Tiny Lights’ – adapted by Patrick Neale from his own novel – does three things superbly well, fumbles the ball elsewhere, and outright drops a bollock in two places. On of these bollock-drops is crucial, the other an annoyance.

Here’s what ‘City of Tiny Lights’ does best: it gives Riz Ahmed a gift of a lead role and gives him the space to knock it out of the park. I’ve yet to see Ahmed give even a lazy performance; he’s certainly come nowhere near a bad one. The guy has charisma to burn and an effortlessness in front of the camera. I’m convinced he can play pretty much any character. Here, he essays the role of Tommy Akhtar, a chain-smoking ex-cop eking out a precarious living as a private detective.

Which brings us neatly to the second thing the film does brilliantly: it allows itself to be as hard-boiled as fuck. Akhtar is cynical and world-weary and not adverse to using violence if need be, and all of these things spew from the still open wound of his defeated romanticism. Tommy Akhtar is a private eye in the grand tradition of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe; his odyssey through the city’s underbelly is as dark and labyrinthine and as riddled with distrust and ghosts from the past as any of theirs. The narrative is almost deliberately complicated, the pinball of Akhtar’s investigation pinging from murdered call girls to low-level politics to crooked property deals by way of radicalisation and fundamentalism.

It’s a distillation of everything that’s wrong with a metropolitan city: corruption, careerism, capitalism, corporationism, racial disharmony and the arrogance and entitlement of power. With Josh Brolin or Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role, you could easily imagine it unfolding against the neon soaked backdrop of New York. But no, we’re in London but that doesn’t stop Travis shooting the city as if were the rotten half of the Big Apple. He also shoots London without feeling the need to shoehorn any of the obvious landmarks into the background. This is a London that doesn’t recognise the Eye, Big Ben, Tower Bridge or the Spire. Even the most upwardly mobile of the film’s characters wouldn’t get within spitting distance of West India Quay.

Akhtar is variously aided, distracted and emboldened in his investigations by new client, high class call girl Melody (Cush Jumbo – who ought to be a major star in two years’ time if there’s any justice), old flame Shelley (Billie Piper, sadly underused) and his memory-addled, cricket-loving father Farzad (Roshan Seth). Subject of whom: third massive plus-point in the film’s favour. Seth is nothing short of awesome, imbuing his role with poignant dignity even as he provides comic relief in the early scenes. His pivotal moment in a tense scene late in the game is something I absolutely won’t spoil; suffice it to say he walks away with the film.

Here’s what the film doesn’t do so well (I’ll keep this part of the review brief, because I’d rather retain my positive impressions of ‘City of Tiny Lights’): It has a terrible title. Yes, I know it’s from a song by Frank Zappa, but Zappa never gets a mention and Akhtar isn’t established as a music fan in the way of, say, Inspectors Rebus, Resnik or Morse. It’s a good title for a song, but not for a film, and certainly not for a hard-boiled film. Unfortunately, it’s a title that seems to have inspired DoP Felix Wiedemann to go overboard with the focus pulls, the cityscapes behind Akhtar drifting, time after time, into a blur of … well … tiny lights. It’s a thudding example of a visual aesthetic bludgeoned into literalism, and after a while it becomes wearying. The decision, too, to render a couple of dramatic pursuits as an impressionist blur of colour and motion might have sounded conceptually brilliant during storyboarding, but just comes across as arty-farty and an impediment to the film’s pace. And during those moments where the film slows long enough to let you think about it too much – its 110 minute running time is excessive; it should have been a fast and brutal 90 minute thriller – it’s difficult to fathom any reason why Akhtar persists with his investigation in the face of at least two very convincing warnings-off.

Which brings me to the two big failings. For all that Billie Piper brings the star presence to the role of Akhtar’s lost love, the series of flashbacks prompted by her reappearance – which cumulatively account for about a fifth of the overall film – are both unconvincingly staged and only peripheral to the plot. The big thing that’s been haunting Akhtar all these years is revealed in decidedly ho-hum fashion, and the connection between his wasted youth in the 90s and a character he reencounters contemporaneously, could have easily been effected with recourse to the rampant melodrama on display here. The 90s scenes are terrible and come damn close to derailing the film.

The job is almost done for them by the very last scene. It’s one thing for an anti-hero to find personal redemption after encountering the very depths of human venality; just like it’s one thing for a terminal loner to find himself, at film’s end, with an ersatz family (Clint Eastwood’s ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ pulls this trick off perfectly, without ever being saccharine). Unfortunately, ‘City of Tiny Lights’ tries to deliver both in a single scene, ending on a truly god-awful final line. It sends you out of the cinema choking on a sugar lump of pure schmaltz.

‘City of Tiny Lights’ has garnered cautious reviews at best, and struggled to finds its audience on the big screen. Maybe it will have an afterlife on DVD. I hope so, even though I know it’s not a film I’d get many repeat viewings out of. I would like to see Ahmed play Tommy Akhtar again, though; this time with a paired down script, directed with ruthless narrative drive, and free from even the vaguest strand of sentiment.

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