CITYOFTINYLIGHTS | Riz Ahmed returns from a galaxy far, far away to play a British Asian private eye in modern-day London
It’s weird we have so few British films set in Britain that look and feel like contemporary Britain does,” sighs Riz Ahmed. “They all seem to be period dramas. Yet I don’t think our most exciting stories are way behind us in the distant past. I think our most exciting stories are happening right now.”
It was one such story that drew the 34-year-old Four Lions star – hotter than hot at present thanks to his recent roles in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and HBO’S The Night Of – to City Of Tiny Lights, an adaptation of Patrick Neate’s 2005 novel about a British Asian private eye solving mysteries from his office above a west London cab firm.
“I loved the idea of taking the gumshoe genre and bringing it up to date,” says the actor, who thinks his Tommy Akhtar character offers “a fresh take on the archetypal private investigator. I’m always attracted to breaking tropes and refurbishing them. This film has the same molecular structure as a classic private investigator movie, but different DNA.”
For director Pete Travis ( Dredd), the chief appeal of the film was the opportunity it provided to show London in all its multicultural glory. “I was bored seeing films set in the place I live in which I didn’t recognise,” says the Salford-born helmer. “You live in a city and you watch films set in that city and you feel you’re living in a different place. This was sort of a love story to the city and its diversity. We looked at a lot of gumshoe films and tried to imagine what it would be like to be living in that world now.”
The world in City Of Tiny Lights is certainly far removed from Philip Marlowe’s Los Angeles. The details, however, are instantly familiar: a femme fatale ( The Good Wife’s Cush Jumbo), a sultry old flame ( Doctor Who’s Billie Piper) and a murder mystery that connects people from all walks of life. Property developers, MI5 and radical Islam hate-preachers are just a few of the players here.
“The script caught my imagination straight away,” says Jumbo. “It spoke to me emotionally and was an exciting opportunity to do something different.”
What really sold the project, though, was the chance it gave the 31-year-old to return to her roots. “At one point I was shooting a couple of streets away from a primary school I went to,” she remembers. “I was excited by how the film holds up a mirror to my city…”
City Of Tiny Lights opens on 7 April.