THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS!



In some ways PROVOKED: A TRUE STORY is
the Anglo-Indian version of
THE BURNING BED,
the 1984 television movie that starred Farrah
Fawcett. Both films featured lead performers
more known for their looks than their thespian
skills. Both were based on true stories. Both
centered on an abused wife and mother who
takes matters into her own hands and sets fire
to the bed where her husband/attacker is
sleeping. Both women eventually beat the
justice system in their respective countries.

The impossibly beautiful Aishwarya Rai portrays
Kiranjit Ahluwalia, a modest and shy Punjabi
woman who moves to London for the arranged
marriage to Deepak Ahluwalia (Naveen
Andrews). At first, the couple appear to be
happy with Deepak purchasing a home and
Kiranjit pregnant with their first child. But soon
the cracks start to show. Deepak prefers to
spend his nights drinking and sleeping with
English women while his wife sits at home.
Tensions mount and the husband begins to
abuse his wife, a slap here, a push there. In one
flashback the audience sees a caring doctor who
suspects abuse but who is powerless to do
anything because Kiranjit won't tell the truth.
One evening after being sexually assaulted by
her husband, she sets fire to the bed and the
house burns down. A policeman (Nicholas Irons)
discovers her in a near catatonic state, clutching
her children. This is an important detail as the
officer in charge is determined to railroad her
and he forces the young policeman to testify
that Kiranjit had her wits about her at her trial.

Because she is an immigrant to the United
Kingdom, Kiranjit doesn't fully understand all
the implications of her arrest and detainment.
Her legal aid lawyers (Rebecca Pidgeon) does
what she can but she's not as interested in the
case as she might be if she weren't doing pro
bono work. Instead, it falls to a nonprofit group
run by Indian immigrants (including Nandita Das'
Rahda Dalal) to take up Kiranjit's cause.

The film also attempts to show how Kiranjit
navigated the women's prison in which she was
incarcerated and some of those sequences tend
to invoke (whether deliberately or not) many of
the old Hollywood films like
CAGED. Kiranjit's
cellmate is Veronica Scott (Miranda Richardson)
who shares a few things in common with her.
Veronica or Ronnie takes the newcomer under
her wing -- even teaches her how to speak and
write better English -- but there's no hint of
sexual menace -- she appears to do so simply
because it's the right thing. Ronnie even does
Kiranjit a massive favor and asks her
well-known brother (Robbie Coltrane) to
represent her in her attempt to gain a new trial.
That court proceeding ends up establishing
battered women's syndrome (or provocation) as
a defense in the United Kingdom.

PROVOKED: A TRUE STORY moves at a breezy
pace but the tone of the film veers wildly under
the direction of Jag Mundhra. The use of
flashbacks sometimes gets confusing and the
courtroom scenes don't seem to belong to the
same movie that the jail sequences do. And
then there's the matter of the Southall Black
Sisters, the group to which Rahda Dalal belongs.
They seem to be from yet a third movie. The
screenplay by Carl Austin and Rahila Gupta is
not a cohesive one and the writers work
overtime to cram into the story everything they
feel is important.

Perhaps one of the main problems with the film
is Rai's performance. Granted, this former
beauty queen is easy on the eyes, but she is
not a terribly strong actress. Even in her
Bollywood films she has often been the weak
link. She was passable in Gurinda Chadha's
tweaking of Jane Austen,
BRIDE & PREJUDICE,
but not much was demanded of her. In
PROVOKED, she does manage to convey the
character's transformation from diffident and
tradition-bound immigrant to a more polished
and self-assured woman, but that is
accomplished more by her hairstyles and
clothing than by her acting.

Since the film also features Nandita Das, a
strong and vibrant actress, I wondered how it
might have played better had the actresses
switched roles. Unfortunately, Das isn't near the
"name" that Rai is, so we are stuck with the
casting. Das does what she can with the
underwritten role.

Naveen Andrews has been badly served by both
the screenplay and the director. In previous
efforts, this actor has projected a sexy warmth
(see
THE ENGLISH PATIENT or KAMA SUTRA)
or a sense of mystery (TV's
Lost). Here he is
reduced to a caricature and he flounders badly.
Before this movie, I don't think I had seen the
actor give a truly bad performance. Now I have.

It may take the audience a moment or two to
place the actress when Veronica Scott enters
the scene. I know I had to struggle to figure out
who this semi-familiar looking woman was.
When I realized it was Miranda Richardson, I
was astonished and impressed. This powerful
actress buries her vanity and plays a somewhat
blowzy creature, a tough-as-nails but with a
heart of gold woman. It's intriguing work, even
if it feels like she stepped into the scene from a
totally different universe.

There is also a nicely performed turn by Nicholas
Irons as the youthful policeman whose empathy
for Kiranjit is palpable but who caves into his
superiors threats with predictably unhappy
results.

PROVOKED: A TRUE STORY sets out to tell an
important story in the history of the British
judicial system. Unfortunately, the project was
undertaken by filmmakers who seemingly didn't
know how to handle the implications of the
story they wanted to tell.


RATING:                C
MPAA Rating:           NONE
Running time:         113 mins.
PROVOKED: A TRUE STORY
© 2007 by C.E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
Aishwarya Rai as Kiranjit Ahluwalia in
PROVOKED: A TRUE STORY

Photo courtesy: Eros International