A mul­ti­cul­tural, modern Lon­don tale – just don’t call it Mus­lim noir

The National - News - Arts & Life - - Front Page - James Mot­tram

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.”

to­mor­row opens

Cour­tesy BFI Lon­don Film Fes­ti­val

Riz Ahmed in City of Tiny Lights.

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