City of Tiny Lights is a gritty British crime/noir movie from 2016, made by BBC Films.
The story is a fairly standard one: a hard-living private detective in London is hired to investigate the disappearance of a young Russian prostitute, in a case that has links to drugs, terrorism, a property scam – and a terrible event from his own past. In the process he’s reunited with an old flame, now something of a femme fatale, who helps him but also stirs memories that might best be forgotten.
So far, so noir formula, but this has one distinction – the PI is Asian, and most of the action takes place within the British Asian community. The property scam involves an old school friend; the terrorism centres around the local mosque. And the PI’s own father (a wonderful turn from Roshan Seth, reprising his ‘bonkers Dad’ role from My Beautiful Laundrette) has a pivotal role to play.
I enjoyed the film, with certain reservations. Riz Ahmed is cracking in the central role of hard-drinking, chain-smoking PI Tommy Akhtar, and Billie Piper lends star power as femme fatale Shelley. The back streets of London make a moody backdrop for the action, and there are some clever nods to modern culture and the place of Islam in British society, alongside the more Chandler-esque elements. However, there are far too many flashbacks to Tommy’s childhood, with young actors who bear too little resemblance to their adult selves, which becomes confusing. And there’s too much reliance on Tommy knocking back shot after shot of whisky, and lighting up cigarette after cigarette. This is presumably to show how dysfunctional he is – but it happens so often that it starts to take over from the action.
But my biggest worry, which poked me from time to time during the film and then sat up and shrieked at me once I’d switched off, was the uneasy feeling that deep down, this is an unpleasantly stereotypical portrayal of the Asian community. The hero is a westernised lapsed Muslim who drinks, smokes and dates white women. The heroine is pretty – and white. Most of the other Asian characters are either slimy con artists or wild-eyed fundamentalist terrorists plotting to overthrow nasty western society. And the book the film is based on was written by a non-Asian British bloke. I’m hoping I’m just being overly sensitive, and that any negativity was unintentional, but the anti-Muslim, pro-western sentiments are blatant enough to make me distinctly uncomfortable. It’s a shame, because a more balanced approach could have added hugely to the tension, and made the film both more intelligent and much more interesting. As it is, I probably won’t bother watching it again.