Riz Ahmed is absolutely what people describe as a captivating screen presence. He looks fairly unassuming, a regular kind of person, but he inhabits his roles so completely and with such charm that it is intoxicating.
That was a major factor in my enjoyment of City of Tiny Lights, which is solid but unremarkable – with the exception of Ahmed and the actor playing his younger self (newcomer Reiss Kershi-Hussain, who for some reason is not listed in the cast on IMDb).
Riz Ahmed is Tommy Akhtar, a small-time private investigator who is approached in true film noir fashion by a woman who needs his help to solve a mystery. There’s a voice-over, blinds at the window casting shadows, and a lot of rain. It feels like we’re going to get a 21st century, London-set gumshoe story. But what Akhtar begins to uncover takes him back to events from his youth, which intertwine with modern day religious tensions, the CIA, drugs, murder, and which becomes just a little convoluted. There are so many threads that it’s quite difficult to hold on to them all – but fortunately we have Riz whose charming presence is enough to carry things through to the end.
Alongside Ahmed, Roshan Seth is again everybody’s favourite Asian cricket-loving granddad, Billie Piper is a blast from the past who appears to only have one dress to her name, and Cush Jumbo is unfortunately the rather stereotypical tart with a heart.
The cinematography has succeeded in exquisitely capturing an atmosphere of London as the city of tiny lights, and I am curious as to what audiences outside of the UK will make of this. Some of the dialogue may be tricky for a non-London ear (I struggled myself on one occasion) but perhaps it was age and not accent which was the stumbling block!
Overall a solid presentation, but one which hadn’t entirely decided whether to be full-on film noir and as a result didn’t quite hit the mark – but saved by the firm wicket-keeping hands of Riz Ahmed.
A version of this post first appeared at http://www.filmdispenser.com