A multicultural, modern London tale – just don’t call it Muslim noir
A private detective pounding rain-soaked streets; plumes of cigarette smoke twirling in the air; a glamorous femme fatale. These are somewhat familiar tropes when it comes to film noir. But City of Tiny Lights plays it differently. Set in contemporary London, gumshoe Tommy Akhtar ( played by Riz Ahmed) is the son of a cricket- loving Pakistani immigrant – which pitches him as a world away from Humphrey Bogart. Ahmed, who found wider fame as pilot Bodhi Rook in recent Star Wars spin- off Rogue One, immediately sensed the shift. “There’s something familiar and classic about it – you know what you’re getting, that LA Confidential thing,” he says. “But there’s also something fresh about it. That combination of the familiar and the fresh ... I guess it worked in Rogue One . It can be an interesting approach to refurbish a classic building.”
Yet the 34- year- old actor is reluctant to label the film a Muslim noir, seeing it as rather reductive. “I think it’s a contemporary British noir. It’s not about [that] being negative, but I think it potentially limits the focus of it, because it’s not just about Muslim characters interacting with each other. It’s a noir with contemporary British characters in it and some of them happen to be Muslim.”
Adapted by Patrick Neate from his own 2005 novel, City of Tiny Lights is simply a reflection of multicultural contemporary London, according to the film’s director, Pete Travis. “That’s what the London I know is like. You have to look a long way in films to find it, and I just think that’s wrong. It’s great that Patrick’s a white, middle-class guy who went to university, and he wrote about an Asian private detective, and wrote it beautifully.”
Travis is particularly critical when it comes to recent portraits of the British capital on film. “I barely recognise it, frankly. It’s either bleak arthouse miserabilism or glossy Hollywood silliness – posh people in Notting Hill who can’t decide whether they’re in love with each other. It doesn’t feel like it reflects the London I live in. I have to look back a long way to movies like My Beautiful Laundrette and Mona Lisa to find the London I recognise.”
The film sees Akhtar hired to find a missing Russian girl, a story that takes him back into his own past as he rekindles old friendships and even a teenage romance ( with single mother Shelley, played by Billie Piper). While it deals with very contemporary issues – commerce, corruption and even Islamic fundamentalism – Ahmed thinks that what separates the story from other detective yarns is its emotional core.
“I love this idea – playing this classic, private-eye detective in a noir and then to give that noir a bit of a twist and that twist not being more darkness but actually quite a big heart,” he says. “It’s about family and friendships, as opposed to the classic noir mould of an amoral world and transactional relationships. It’s about people seeking out connection, so I loved that twist on it.”
Visually, Travis was inspired by the nocturnal nightscapes of Hong Kong as glimpsed in Wong Kar- wai’s Chungking Express and Fallen Angels. “The style has to grow out of the story, and too often, people just don’t do that,” he adds. “They impose a style that doesn’t actually fit it. And this was really a noir … using the ideas and the beautiful images of that genre was a way to actually tell something romantic. Again, it’s about a love affair with a city.”
Partly shot in Wembley, close to where Ahmed grew up, it evoked nostalgic memories for the actor. “I could relate to that – suburban London, hanging out in the park, where everyone had their first cigarette and first kiss and playing cricket and football all summer long. And the friendships you make but also the ones that irretrievably break down because of something that happened when you were younger. I think a lot of people will be able to relate to that.”
Riz Ahmed in City of Tiny Lights.