Ahluwalia's case has clear historical interest; in the early 1990s, it changed the way the British legal system viewed the battered woman's defense, allowing for the possibility that a woman could be provoked to violence by chronic abuse. But unfortunately, "Provoked" feels more like a bad-husband story from the Lifetime Channel than the weighty drama you'd expect. A number of key performances are woefully amateur, and director Jag Mundhra's pacing is limp and tensionless.
The story starts with the burning bed. Deepak (Naveen Andrews) wakes up long enough to be able to finger Kiranjit (Bollywood megastar Aishwarya Rai) for the crime. From there, we go off to prison with a dazed Kiranjit, who is far too modest and culturally repressed to testify on her own behalf. It's only in a series of flashbacks that we see the abuse, and here, Mundhra blunders by continuing to take us back in time when we no longer need convincing. We get it; Deepak is a bum. One supposes their intent is to make us want to reach for the match ourselves, which to some extent, a film like this needs in order to succeed. This never happens.
Maybe it's that Andrews (who will be familiar to fans of both "Lost" and "The English Patient") can't quite sell us on Deepak's evil. But the bigger problem is Rai, an actress of unearthly beauty but limited range. In the first hour of the film, her Kiranjit is a cipher, a woman who communicates nothing but helplessness.
In the second half, her gal pals in prison, particularly another abused woman, Ronnie (Miranda Richardson, the film's one bright note) give her the strength to find her personal power. This is illustrated in a scene in which she stands up to the prison bully, a lesbian depicted as such a stereotype it's actually embarrassing to be in the audience; you feel complicit in the humiliation. It's good to see Kiranjit develop a backbone, but why is it that we never feel we really know the woman who was capable of pouring gasoline over her husband's legs and setting him aflame.
In the end, "Provoked" is not provocative enough.
Mary F. Pols is the Times movie critic. Reach her at 925-945-4741 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Starring: Aishwarya Rai, Naveen Andrews, Miranda Richardson, Rebecca Pidgeon, Nandita Das, Robbie Coltrane
Opens today: Shattuck, Berkeley; Opera Plaza, SF; Naz Cinemas in Fremont
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes