LONDON -- An earnest but inept film about a real life criminal case that changed British law in respect to evidence of spousal abuse in trials, "Provoked" pays too much attention to its do-good theme and not enough to the basics of filmmaking.

Aishwarya Rai stars as a young Punjabi woman who sets fire to her Anglicized Indian husband after 10 years of an arranged marriage in which he routinely brutalizes and beats her. When he dies, she is charged with murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. But her case draws the attention of a paralegal organization in London that campaigns for her case to be appealed. The film begins with the woman's attack on her husband and arrest, and then follows through to her imprisonment and the resolution of the appeal with flashbacks relating the problems of her marriage.

It's all desperately sincere but the script is littered with cliches and the direction is so lame that the film prompts unwanted laughter at moments that should be entirely serious. The worthy topic and some big names -- Rai, Miranda Richardson, Robbie Coltrane and Naveen Andrews from TV's "Lost" costar -- could garner some initial attention but boxoffice prospects are slim.

One key problem is that the filmmakers treat Bollywood star Rai with kid gloves as if reluctant to make her pretty face look as if someone had beaten her up. Marital abuse is ugly in any form but while Andrews has the thankless role of being there only to act nasty, the visual result of the assaults is limited to a few bruises and a cut lip. Rai looks like a pouting lamb much of the time and things only get worse when she lands in the slammer.

Richardson plays cellmate Ronnie, a tough cookie who also killed her husband but who keeps her teenaged daughter in posh schools and is inexplicably sister to a top barrister named Lord Foster (Coltrane). The other prisoners are a laughable assortment of jailhouse dames who go through the motions of every movie ever made about women in prison.

The women's support group, led by Nadita Das, is made up of very nice ladies who lunch and raise money for worthy causes. They shock themselves and burst out in self-satisfied laughter whenever anyone comes up with a bright idea that might help get the desperate woman out of jail.

Nicholas Irons plays a young police constable encouraged by a racist detective (Steve McFadden) to lie about the accused woman's demeanor when she is arrested, and his change of heart aids the cause. Miriam Taylor is a stiff-necked barrister who takes the woman's case but lacks the drive to pursue an appeal.

The screenplay mentions the issue of arranged marriages in passing but without serious comment, and it shies from addressing the complex topic of how immigrant communities with strong religious and cultural identities exist in a modern secular society.

The acting, even from reliable pros such as Richardson and Coltrane, is stiff and awkward throughout, which usually indicates a slack hand in the direction. Some of the bit players are frankly awful although given the wince inducing lines they are stuck with it's hard to blame them.

Media One Global Entertainment Ltd. in association with Motion Picture Partners International and British Media Fund International
Eros International
Director: Jag Mundhra
Screenwriters: Carl Austin, Rahila Gupta
Producer: Sunanda Murali Manohar
Executive producers: Dr. J. Murali Manohar, Firuzi Khan
Cinematographer: Madhu Ambat
Production designer: Peter Joyce
Editors: Jag Mundhra and Sanjeev Mirajkar
Costume designer: Sarah Tapscott
Composer: A.R. Rahman
Kiranjit Ahluwalia: Aishwarya Rai
Ronnie: Miranda Richardson
Deepak Ahluwalia: Naveen Andrews
Radha Dalal: Nandita Das
Miriam Taylor: Rebecca Pidgeon
PC James O'Connel: Nicholas Irons
Edward Foster: Robbie Coltrane
DS Ron Myers: Steve McFadden
Jackie: Deborah Moore
Sheela Ahluwalia: Leena Dhingra
Anil Gupra: Raji James
Doreen: Lorraine Bruce
Lord Justice Taylor: Derek Smee
Running time -- 110 minutes
No MPAA rating (U.K. 15)