It's fair to assume that Provoked director Jag Mundhra wanted to make absolutely certain that viewers, no matter how sexist or reactionary, would sympathize with protagonist Aishwarya Rai, even after she douses her husband with gasoline and sets him alight. Based on the real-life story of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, an Indian-born Briton whose case changed British legal precedent, Provoked does everything possible to stack the deck in Rai's favor and wring out tears for her plight. But it becomes so strident and overbearing in the process that even sympathy for Rai can't guarantee sympathy with the film.
First seen shell-shocked and nearly comatose after hospitalizing her husband (Lost's Naveen Andrews), Rai spends the first third of the movie in a weepy daze, moving only at a cringing crawl, and forcing the film to slow to her pace. By the time she's semi-functional again, she's in prison, where smirking cellmate Miranda Richardson stands up for her in a series of clumsily orchestrated jailhouse confrontations straight out of a women-in-prison movie. While wide-eyed public solicitor Rebecca Pidgeon is sympathetic to Rai's cause, she has little legal ground for defense, and little chance once Andrews' mother lies to cover her son's abuse and a racist cop pulls strings to keep the "Paki" from getting off the hook. But a women's-rights organization touts Rai as the victim in the case, forcing a by-the-numbers courthouse climax in which barrister Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid of Harry Potter movie fame) offers a pioneering legal defense based on grounds of provocation.
Mundhra and frequent screenwriting partner Carl Austin, whose previous collaborations consist of softcore thrillers like Wild Cactus and Twisted Passion, plod predictably through the necessaries: mechanical flashbacks to Andrews' frequent rapes and drunken abuses; teary scenes between Rai and her kids; feminist uplift as Rai makes friends and empowers herself, culminating in a ridiculous scene where the entire prison turns out to cheer her on as she returns to court. There's a noble cause buried under all the clumsy speeches, blatant manipulations, and foreordained conflicts, but the thudding lack of subtlety proves exhausting. When Andrews stands over the whimpering Rai, sneering about how she's helpless to end his beatings because "you're a woman, less than nothing," he might as well be screaming "Spousal abuse is bad!" directly into the camera. If people start burning copies of this film, at least British law will let them argue that they were honestly provoked.